The Long March by Roger Kimball
The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s Changed America
by Roger Kimball
Encounter. 326 pp. $23.95
No one is neutral about the 1960’s. As the critic Joseph Epstein noted some years ago, the decade has become, for better or worse, “a political Rorschach test.”
A liberal, for example, can be at least partially defined as someone who believes the 60’s were a time of admirable idealism, even if the excesses of the New Left and the counterculture made the country a somewhat less safe and orderly place than it once was. Hard leftists, by contrast, see the era as a time of truly revolutionary potential, a time when young people made great strides toward overthrowing middle-class conformity and the “system” that perpetuates it—only to see their hopes fade with the election of Richard Nixon and the country’s return to apathetic slumber.
And then there are those on the other side. If liberals see the 60’s as a time of idealism, conservatives tend to focus on the failure of liberalism itself to resist the destructive and antidemocratic impulses let loose by 60’s leftism. And if a hard leftist is one who thinks that regrettably the 1960’s accomplished next to nothing, a hard conservative is one who believes the decade changed virtually everything for the worse, inaugurating a period of moral decline that continues to this day. According to this last view, every sordid detail of our fin de siècle—from cold-blooded murder in suburban schools to pornography on the Internet and in the Oval Office—can be traced to the influence of the New Left and the counterculture, the charlatans and demagogues who led these movements, and the spoiled and self-righteous upper-class children who carried out their mandate.
In recent years Roger Kimball has distinguished himself as one of the most articulate and forceful spokesmen for the hard conservative view. In his first book, Tenured Radicals (1990), he argued persuasively that the left-wing extremists of the 1960’s, having failed to capture the nation’s political institutions, redirected their activism toward the universities, where they have pursued their agenda by indoctrinating the young. Now, in The Long March, Kimball has expanded his analysis from a single arena to the country as a whole, providing an account that is equal parts “cultural history” and “damage report.” Based on a series of articles in the New Criterion, where he is the managing editor, the book focuses in particular on the “seductive personalities”—mostly artists and writers—who formed the vanguard of a cultural revolution that “tore apart, perhaps irrevocably, the moral and intellectual fabric of our society.”
Kimball finds the antecedents of this cultural revolution in the actions and ideas of the Beat movement of the 1950’s. In his view, the avant-garde writers Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs did much to prepare the way for “pathologies” that would arrive in full force only a decade later. Whether one considers “their squalid, promiscuous sex lives, their pseudospirituality, their attack on rationality,” or “their aggressive narcissism and juvenile political posturing,” Kimball writes in his characteristically heated prose, “the Beats were every bit as ‘advanced’ as any 60’s radical.”
Kimball turns next to the novelist Norman Mailer and the critic Susan Sontag, literary celebrities who were no less guilty of “softening up” the culture and preparing it for the revolution-to-come. Mailer’s special contribution was to celebrate violence as a personal and social necessity. As he declared in a notorious 1957 essay, anyone seeking authenticity amid the spiritual desolation of postwar America had no choice but to encourage the “psychopath” in himself. Thus, a young thug who “beat in the brains of a candy-store keeper” was not committing a heinous crime, Mailer wrote, but rather answering an urgent and understandable need “to purge his violence” and find “an orgasm,” figuratively speaking, “more apocalyptic than the one which preceded it.”
Sontag, for her part, was an especially energetic source of the anti-Americanism and hatred of the West that were central to 60’s radicalism. Before traveling to Hanoi at the height of the Vietnam war—as a guest of the North Vietnamese—she announced that the U.S. had become a “criminal, sinister country,” possessed by the “monstrous conceit that it has the mandate to dispose of the destiny of the world.” This assessment, Kimball writes, was itself an outgrowth of her conclusion, reached around the same time, that the “white race” was nothing less than “the cancer of human history.”
By the late 1960’s, such pronouncements had become commonplace, as had the Utopian visions that were their inevitable counterpart. Of particular interest to Kimball are the various sex gurus who (like the Beats) largely predated the counterculture, from the orgasm-obsessed Wilhelm Reich, to Norman O. Brown with his advocacy of “erotic exuberance,” to Herbert Marcuse and his improbable melding of Freud with Marx. As Kimball puts it, the ideas put forward by such people—Marcuse declared the need for a “progenital polymorphous sexuality” that would bring about “the redemption of pleasure, the halt of time, the absorption of death”—were “so extravagant that one is tempted to dismiss them as ridiculous figments of a diseased understanding. The problem is that these figments . . . have been extolled as liberating wisdom by an entire generation.”
Kimball concludes by turning from literature and high culture to the agendas of activists like the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver and the drug propagandist Timothy Leary. As he sees it, by the last years of the 1960’s the ethic of “serial emancipation” had succeeded to such an extent that traditional forms of artistic representation and expression, even those of the counterculture’s intellectual founders, appeared insufficiently revolutionary. All that remained was Leary’s call to “drop out” in a drug-induced stupor and Cleaver’s incitement to armed insurrection, alternatives that shared little besides a reckless rejection of traditional standards of lawfulness and civility.
In laying out this sorry tale in such vivid detail, Roger Kimball has indubitably performed a service. In the pages of his book we are once again reminded of the vulgarity and heedless destructiveness of so much that was said and done during the 1960’s, in culture no less than in politics and manners. The leaders of the counterculture, Kimball writes, “pandered to a generation’s vanity, ambition, cowardice, and lust for sensation; increasingly they pandered to a generation whose vanity was its lust for sensation.”
And yet, for all its single-minded power as a polemic, The Long March falls short as a work of cultural history. At no point is there a pause in the indictment, a moment when Kimball steps back to gain some distance from his declared enemies, let alone any sympathetic understanding of them or of those who, whether permanently or momentarily, became attracted to them.
This limitation is most apparent in his decision not to undertake what he calls an “etiology” of the 60’s. Declaring that there is a “never-ending series of incomplete answers to the question of ‘Why?,’ ” he has chosen to tabulate the “effects” of the counterculture rather than to explain the reasons for its emergence or success. But without determining the source of the disease, it is difficult to be sure what its effects really have been, or to know how to cure them.
Kimball notes that during the 60’s, “attitudes that had characterized a tiny minority on the fringes of the culture were more and more accepted into the mainstream.” But why were they accepted, and not rejected? One possible reason for the embrace of ideas propounded by figures like Ginsberg, Mailer, and Marcuse is that they appealed to something in the nation’s collective psyche—perhaps its passionate love of freedom and equality. But if that is so, or even partially so, then the 60’s emerge—again, partially—as an outgrowth of very American preoccupations. Kimball, however, having neglected to ask whether the counterculture represented a deviation from American principles or was in some way a natural if deeply troubling result of them, is in no position to propose an appropriate remedy.
The result is a book that, for all its virtues, is permeated by an air of desperation and dejection. Indeed, Kimball closes his discussion with angry swipes at David Brooks and Mark Lilla, two conservative writers whose less impassioned examinations of the era have led them to positions very different from his own. According to Brooks, for example, the most potent bohemian ideals of the 60’s have been not only absorbed but actually neutralized by American’s abiding and still dominant attachment to bourgeois values. Lilla, for his part, shares Kimball’s disgust with the counterculture but argues that just as the 1960’s saw one revolution, the 1980’s saw another altogether—the Reagan revolution. To Lilla, it is the effects bequeathed by these two opposed yet complementary revolutions that make up the complicated moral and cultural universe we inhabit today.
These are controversial claims by dissenting friends, and they merit further debate. They certainly do not deserve the rude dismissal that Kimball gives them. But the careful consideration of views at odds with one’s own is a virtue of the intellect, not the battlefield. In that respect, it is especially disheartening to see one of our liveliest and best-trained intellects falling prey to the ideological furies let loose by a decade he rightly deplores.