Commentary Magazine

The Urban Crisis (Cont'd)

To the Editor:

In my critique [“Is the Urban Crisis Real?,” Controversy, Novvember 1970] of Irving Kristol’s essay, “Urban Civilization & Its Discontents” [July 1970], I raised the question whether the propensity of intellectuals to conceive of crisis in contemporary American society derives from empirical fact—reality as it is perceived by people and the demonstrable workings of institutions—or from something else. I did not elaborate upon what that something else might be other than to hint gently that it has to do with confusion in the minds of professional observers of society, and some fear also, and that the crisis said to inhere in society might more profitably be traced to the eye of the beholder so that we might better understand the idea of crisis and its remarkably pervasive presence.

That presence now includes the animating spirit of this magazine, for in Mr. Kristol’s rejoinder and in Norman Podhoretz’s comment on our colloquy [“The Idea of Crisis,” November 1970] both men, in different ways but for less different reasons, insist upon the validity of the perception to describe a large part of reality including the public business that is the affair of politics and political action. Its presence here is the “problem” as I tried to make clear, not its presence outside, and the issue between Mr. Kristol and me is the proper posture of the liberal intellect in the service of a more humane and democratic society in the face of the assault on it of which the “New” Left and the cotton-candy “counter-culture” is compounded. I am one with Messrs. Kristol and Podhoretz in perceiving the antidemocratic odor, the evidence of the totalitarian imagination, in social analysis that proceeds from an assumption of crisis and pretends to instruct a democratic society in courses of action to end it, and I wish no one to think I feel no threat to the continued good health of American democracy posed by such ideas. Nor, in making the radical dichotomy between reality as it is lived and its translation into words and ideas, the disjunction between art and life, did I imply that the ideas and attitudes men carry in their heads and hearts and which inform public debate can or should be separable from the actions of citizens, their elected officials, and scholars in a democracy.

But my questions were directed to the more precise issue of how Mr. Kristol “knows” what ideas and attitudes are in men’s heads and hearts, other than his own, so that he can declare in his essay, and more forcefully in his rejoinder, that “our society is sick in spirit” and whether such things as spirits of societies can be divined from what people say in words, especially printed words. An infirmity of literary intellectuals dealing with public affairs and politics is to place excessive weight on words rather than on what people do and it is aggravated in Mr. Kristol’s case by much fear and anxiety about those words, which I can readily understand. It must be soul-searing to devote one’s life and talents to instruction in the meaning of democracy and how Americans practice it and have to face latter-day saints and Know-Nothings with not the slightest intimation of what freedom means or how easily corrupted are the sentiments uttered in its behalf. But this is no excuse for assuming the vices of mind both Mr. Kristol and Mr. Podhoretz rightly fear and loathe in their adversaries nor to tolerate them just because I know they are good guys with noble purposes in mind.

To state, as Mr. Kristol does, for example, that young people on college campuses, who for the most part if they do so at all, talk a great deal about the evils of authority and discipline and experiment with drugs, sexual freedom, and civil disobedience, “have decided they don’t want any part of this civilization” is to engage emotions close to hysteria, emotions more appropriate to the mother and father who having sacrificed, they feel, to send their son to college to become a doctor, discover he has dropped out to live in a hippie commune in California. People who don’t want any part of a society emigrate. The last thing they do is submit to the discipline, haphazard and confused as it may be at times, of the proudest institution of that society. This observation will indeed seem only a “partial vision” of this and other matters, an insufficient stick-in-the-mud attitude, as a sensible response to the problem of Johnny the cop-out would be to his parents in their moment of grief. In both cases, dashed expectation, a realization of failure, and a great flailing of self take place, easily giving way to helplessness. Mr. Kristol engages in this kind of flailing, especially of “social science,” for not coming to grips with “spiritual turmoil,” for not explicating in easy-to-digest, Pablum-like form the “‘causes’ of human behavior” and “the real drift of events and probable shape of things to come,” and for not providing the answers to “the basic questions” of life that men eternally struggle with and which intellectuals dare not presume to answer for them. . . .

Chastising social science for not being a secular religion is a good way to pervert its true value and wither its proper role in a democratic society; crying out that it does not satisfy the itch for answers to such questions is to adopt the worst impulses of those obnoxious young to whom many look as saviors of us all and those, like Charles Reich, who take it upon themselves to provide the answers. This does wonders for the ego, for in the past men usually asked such questions of God. But as Job discovered, even then the answers were ambiguous. In his complaint, Mr. Kristol merely portrays that splendid arrogance and exaggerated sense of importance of the role of intellectuals in society that is the vice of an intellectual elite. . . .

This is a posture, a mix of ideas and emotions, that cannot be justified by the importunate belief that the times require intellectual prophets to rise from the muck of empirical fact and grubby concerns with such things as the distribution of wealth. No more can a democrat believe that extraordinary leadership in politics, above and beyond “mere” self-interest politics, is also required. Both impulses feed on that vacuum of faith that is a dispiriting characteristic of the liberal intellect in disarray as it is of the illiberal one: the felt need for certainty. The faith involved is a crucial one: that Americans have the capacity, the inner resources, to direct their destinies as individuals and citizens, and that society has the public resources to preserve its heritage of freedom and opportunity, and therefore we do not need the ministrations of superior beings to tell us what to do.

Behind Mr. Kristol’s vision of a new “mass society” as an “ominous reality” in America is the same black emptiness of faith in the common man and the democratic process that lies behind the “counter-culture,” and he has good reason to suffer a self-conscious “apocalyptic twinge or two” in formulating his notion of Americans as a herd of sheep being taken in by the debased and vulgar ideas of the latest millenarian Salvationists and others. The central fear that animates his essay and rejoinder is that “we” Americans, or at least enough of us to count a great deal, will be, or are being, taken in by the “counter-culture” and its pretensions, that “contagious” disease to which “more and more” of us are succumbing, his version of what often is called “technology” or the “Establishment” or the power elite. But does not this smack of the same exaggeration his version of campus reality does? Is it “us” who are likely to become sick? Or is it the liberal intellect, unable to cope effectively with a miasma of ignorance, troubled at its evident lack of power and influence and therefore subject to terrifying doubts of its own capacity to survive?

There is good reason for the liberal intellect to be troubled and the nation is heading for troubles, but they are a matter of the decline of authority and effective wielding of public power on behalf of an enlarged sense of the public interest and not, as Mr. Kristol believes, a matter of the decline of morals and democratic civic virtues. There is a general disengagement from the conflicts involved and sacrifices required in the responsible use of public power in favor of quietism and withdrawal, a turning off and tuning out by the great middle classes which remade a continent, a society, and their own lives in the past generation and want to rest—from mobilizing resources to manage American interests abroad, from undertaking grand projects at home, and from the private voluntary association that humanizes politics and institutional activity.

Beneath the surface of events and that jittery politicization of concern and socialization of aesthetic values that characterize “public” discourse are the beginnings of a new normalcy, a withdrawal into myriad private worlds in search of interior satisfactions. It is shriveling the body politic. We shall see some ugly politics of narrow self-interest, a new isolationism, and a shrinkage of the public economic sector and a great deal else that will remind us of the 1920’s. But these are troubles that human intelligence, money, and power can manage, although they may not be well-managed and people will suffer; intellectuals involved in public affairs can help solve them by application of that tough-minded skepticism and empirical pragmatism that Mr. Kristol was at pains to disavow. He disavowed much more, however, in preaching moral revival for the woe of humans as a society, and this is the greatest vice. For in making the achievement of individual happiness dependent upon the moral condition of everyone, or “society” and its works and institutions, Irving Kristol would betray the spirit and resources of the inner man which owe no debt to society and upon which society can lay no claim; he thereby would extinguish that essential hope that through our own efforts tomorrow may be better than today, for ourselves and for society.

Jerome Zukosky
New York City



Irving Kristol writes:

Usually, and fortunately, the kind of disagreement that has emerged between Mr. Zukosky and myself tends to remain “academic.” In settled times, the modes of civility in daily life are not controversial issues—though individuals may, at their leisure, speculatively question them. But these are not settled times we live in; such vague, “cultural” issues become stubbornly intrusive; and so Mr. Zukosky and I, whose specifically political opinions are not far apart, are nevertheless at odds. I see an evident decline in American decency, and I am therefore worried about the future of this country. Mr. Zukosky, seeing the democratic: machinery still functioning, and full of his “faith in the common man,” is offended by my anxieties. He thinks I am being hysterical; I think he is being unperceptive. He thinks I magnify the importance of ephemeral things (e.g., the drug culture, student radicalism, etc.); I think he fails to take seriously important things (e.g., the drug culture, student radicalism, etc.). He thinks 1 pay too much attention to what some people say and write; I think he is being misled by statistical aggregates.

One could go on, but this really isn’t the occasion. Our debate could fill a book, much less a magazine. . . . So I will conclude simply by trying to clarify one issue about which Mr. Zukosky seems confused. I certainly never meant to chastise social science for failing to comprehend a condition of spiritual turmoil. My point was that social science cannot do this—and that social scientists therefore are inclined to doubt the existence, or to minimize the significance, of spiritual turmoil. Mr. Zukosky, a very capable social scientist, is a case in point.


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