Liberalism and the Culture
To the Editor:
“Liberalism and the Culture: A Turning of the Tide?” [October 1996] is a useful reminder that many liberals rather enjoy Western civilization. Its superstructure, at least, is more or less to their taste—remove an I-beam here, a keystone there, cut some doors in the façade, splash some flashier paint about, and they would be willing to pronounce it comfortable and attractive.
I expect Norman Podhoretz would agree that intellectuals of more-or-less liberal persuasion still bear a large part of the burden of maintaining that very superstructure, and often bring real enthusiasm to the work. . . . The problem is that they really do not care much for the foundations. At least, they find it difficult to think seriously about them. Unlike façades and amenities, foundations have an adamantine and uncompromising quality. Defending them implies a posture of irrelativism—for liberals, the greatest of sins.
Mr. Podhoretz’s analysis of David Denby’s Great Books nicely illustrates the problem. After the hydrophobic Left has hammered at those foundations for a generation, Denby finds it timely to “join the discourse [to] make it aesthetically and morally alive.” We can anticipate the combativeness of his participation from this warning: “If parents are not to feel defeated by the media and pop culture they must get over their reluctance to make choices that are based on clear assertions of moral values” (emphasis added). Yet Denby cannot bring himself to say that parents must assert morality; for him, such directness evokes the “iron moralism” of the likes of William J. Bennett. Denby’s nuanced and sophisticated marshmallow moralism is exemplified by his distaste for acquaintances who have “turned themselves into authoritarians.” He and his wife, in contrast, decline to guide their children “like missionaries leading the savages to light.”. . .
The quality of the liberal contribution to moral discourse can be anticipated from the examples cited by Mr. Podhoretz: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. thinks it would be very inconvenient and unpragmatic if the United States were torn apart by grievance-mongers; Robert Hughes of Time magazine takes up the conservative arguments while snarling and snapping at the hand that feeds him; and Denby suspects that religion might have some value because it implies a hierarchy of taste. . . . Such contributions are not very encouraging on their own merits, and Mr. Podhoretz rightly takes them merely as harbingers of a turning of the tide.
This may be so, although I predict a more cataclysmic end for the postmodernizers. My vision is that they will some day be discovered in their multitudes sitting glassy-eyed before their word processors, standing paralyzed behind their lecterns, stretched out with rigid limbs in their offices. I see them advancing in a densely serried phalanx to their inevitable doom: they are all simultaneously going to bore themselves to death. This prophecy came to me five years ago when I set out to read through the 107th MLA convention program. My pulse almost stopped on page 1,400 with “Silence and Mut(e)ilation: White Writing in Foe.” When I came out of a coma three days later, the doctors told me that one more colon, one more conjunction, or one more parenthesis and I would have been a goner.
Whatever excitement the postmodern project generated by its novelty has long since exhausted itself. Its standard prose is stupefying. Its “critiques and analyses” drivelsome and monotonous. Its sentiments hackneyed and bogus. Its proposed objectives pointless. It cannot stand still and it has nowhere to go. The end is inevitable.
What remains when either the tide recedes or the petrified remains are carted away by the custodial staff will be the destruction that has been wrought. How that is to be repaired I cannot visualize. The Denbys may have some useful role in repairing the superstructure, but they have nothing to contribute to shoring up the foundations.
John N. Frary
New Brunswick, New Jersey
To the Editor:
One can only be struck by—and dismayed at—how far today’s liberals have strayed from the liberalism that created our nation. Our founding ethos is apparent in the sadly neglected Federalist 57, attributed to James Madison. This document, arguing in support of the House of Representatives proposed under the Constitution, made it clear that the American concept of freedom offered no artificial barriers to individual advancement.
Madison began Federalist 57 by taking note of a “class of citizens” unsympathetic to the populace at large. His description of this class is as good a summary of the mindset of today’s liberals as can be found: persons seeking the “ambitious sacrifice of the many to the aggrandizement of the few.”
It was Madison’s belief that leaders should work for “the common good of the society” and hold “communion of interests and sympathy of sentiments” with the people, failing which “every government degenerates into tyranny.” . . .
The cause of liberalism will be revived if we make clear to today’s “liberals” that we will not tolerate their machinations toward tyranny for all—all but themselves, of course. Our “liberals” are hardly devoted to liberty, but the rest of us are.
David R. Zukerman
Bronx, New York
To the Editor:
If it were anyone but Norman Podhoretz who had penned “Liberalism and the Culture: A Turning of the Tide?” I might have shrugged if off as an elegantly written bit of wishful thinking. But scorning Podhoretzian punditry ain’t prudent, so I will watch (and hope that he is right about) the culture and feel his pain if he is proved wrong.