athan Glazer is, with Norman Podhoretz, the last of the New York Intellectuals still with us. Now 92 years old, Glazer has been thinking and writing about American public policy and public life for some 70 years. The son of Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants from Poland, Glazer grew up in East Harlem. He attended the City College of New York and then split his professional life between magazines and the academy. He began his career as an editor for Commentary (1945–53) while earning his Ph.D. in sociology from Columbia University at night. Glazer then received academic appointments: first at the University of California, Berkeley (1963–69) and then at Harvard University (1969–93). He also served for years as co-editor of the Public Interest with Irving Kristol.
When Ideas Mattered, a new volume edited by Joseph Dorman and Leslie Lenkowsky, offers us an opportunity to consider the capaciousness of Glazer’s interests and the singular nature of his career as a thinker. The book combines a well-curated selection of Glazer’s writings on ethnicity, race, social policy, architecture, and urbanism, and his own biography, with appraisals of his work by prominent journalists and scholars, including E.J. Dionne, Mark Lilla, Peter Skerry, Jackson Toby, and Reed Udea. The total package is the best introduction to Glazer’s life and thought available between two covers.
The basic outlines of Glazer’s career tell us little about his remarkable and wide-ranging intellectual itinerary. In his student days at CCNY, he was a part of Zionist-socialist group that argued with Stalinists, and he later became a staunch anti-Communist. He first came to national attention as David Riesman’s junior co-author of The Lonely Crowd (which remains among the greatest bestsellers of American sociology) in 1953. A decade later, based on ideas tested in the pages of Commentary, Glazer published Beyond the Melting Pot (with Daniel Patrick Moynihan contributing a chapter and writing the preface), which became a classic in the study of immigrants and ethnicity in America.
Over the ensuing two decades, Glazer found himself at odds with much of the American left. First, in the 1960s, while in Berkeley, Glazer broke with the New Left student movement, criticizing it as naive and utopian. Second, in 1975, Glazer wrote Affirmative Discrimination, in which he opposed affirmative action. Third, in 1988, he collected a series of lectures given at CCNY and articles in Commentary into a book, The Limits of Social Policy, which came to the sobering conclusion that government couldn’t solve every problem—and even for those it could somewhat ameliorate, it did so at the peril of creating unintended consequences. Therefore, hopes that government programs could eliminate poverty, racism, crime, and other social problems were unfounded.
Glazer’s intellectual positions in the late 1960s and early 1970s along with some of his professional associations led him to be grouped among the “neoconservatives” by Michael Harrington in the pages of the socialist journal Dissent. However, Glazer never embraced or took much interest in that hotly contested label. He worked for the Kennedy administration’s Housing and Home Finance Agency, voted for McGovern in 1972 and Carter in 1980, and has always considered himself a liberal. In reflecting on his time editing the Public Interest, he noted that the primary reason “neo” had to be added to conservative was because he and others supported the welfare state created by the New Deal and much of the Great Society—just not the latter’s efforts at social engineering. In 1998, he actually reversed his position on affirmative action, arguing that for black Americans—to whom the nation had a “special obligation”—it was a legitimate practice.
Nathan Glazer’s youthful encounter with Marxism inoculated him against totalizing political ideologies and grand theories of architecture and urban planning.
eing a party of one was the product of his cast of mind and his temperament. Glazer cultivated and practiced intellectual virtues that are in increasingly short supply, including dispassion, humility, and love of debate. His youthful encounter with Marxism inoculated him against totalizing political ideologies and grand theories of architecture and urban planning. He approached questions inductively, from the bottom up, with an appreciation for paradox and nuance, which immunized him against seductive promises that sociology could be a “science” based on data and statistics. Interested more in substance than social-science theories or methods, he endorsed Christopher Jencks’s description of sociology as “slow journalism.” Any reader of Glazer will appreciate in his writings the empathy for his subjects and his humility when confronted with the messiness of reality. Glazer’s personal grace and self-effacing style rarely made colleagues feel personally attacked even when he was witheringly critical of positions they held dear.
When Ideas Mattered shines light on the enduring themes of Glazer’s work. The first is Glazer’s lifelong interest in America’s “ethnic pattern.” In his study of immigrant assimilation in New York, he showed that Jews, Irish, Italians, Polish, and other groups continued to maintain dual identities rather than completely assimilate into a preexisting American identity. Assimilation took a long time—even with the help of epoch-making events like depression and war. And the overarching American identity that the ethnics assimilated into changed in the process.
Reflecting on the most recent wave of immigration, primarily from Mexico and Latin America, Glazer reminds one that Latinos will continue to retain dual identities for a few generations to come, especially in light of modern travel and telecommunications, which will allow for stronger ties to their countries of origin than past immigrants could expect. The big challenge when it comes to immigrants today, as Peter Skerry stresses in his analysis of Glazer, is the extent to which Latinos follow past patterns of integration and upward mobility or see themselves as victimized racial minorities and model their political behavior on the black American experience.
When it comes to the “exceptional position of blacks in the United States,” Glazer remains a significant voice. As he recounts in an autobiographical essay, he first opposed affirmative action largely on the basis of a philosophical conviction that in American culture and law, rights attach to individuals not groups. In the 1970s, he clearly hoped that black Americans would follow the path of immigrant groups from the working class to the middle class and the professions. In the 1990s, he reversed his position in regard to blacks (but not Asians, Hispanics, or women), arguing that America’s special debt to blacks had “not been discharged” and preferential treatment in selective university admissions needed to be sustained.
Glazer stressed the need for policies that sustained work. In his view, making work more attractive at the low end of the labor market is a building block for supporting families and communities.
I believe the view is spreading that the improvement of the black condition must depend in greater degree on the work of blacks themselves . . . Complex as it is, to frame a self-help policy narrative based on what is generally understood as the American immigrant path may be the best choice available: acceptance of how hard it is to get ahead in America, but recognition that one’s efforts can and often will succeed. That approach, after all, does have the merit of largely being true.
n an era of great dissatisfaction with government performance and loud calls for government to DO SOMETHING to better American’s lives, reading Glazer on social policy is a useful reality check. After examining two decades of social policies, Glazer concluded in The Limits of Social Policy that “whereas the prevailing wisdom was that social policies would make steady progress in nibbling away at the agenda of problems set up by the forces of industrialization and urbanization, I came to believe that although social policy had ameliorated some of the problems we had inherited, it had also given rise to other problems no less grave in their effect on human happiness.” Glazer’s skepticism about social programs instilled a deeper faith in traditional American cultural institutions, especially the family and community associations, and the need to protect them from government overreach.
Glazer’s concern that community life could be crushed by misguided, even if well-intentioned, government planners is most evident in his work on architecture and cities. Modernism in architecture began as a “cause.” Its proponents held that by building new “machines for living” and reconfiguring public spaces, human beings would be transformed. Things didn’t turn out that way, and in many cases the architects and the urban planners ended up hurting those they aimed to help. Much modernist public housing and public art has been destroyed or removed in recent decades. Glazer documented how modernism had to lower its sights and become just another style. Brownstones, which no modern architect had a good word for, are now among the hottest properties in the New York City real-estate market.
Yet, Glazer also argues that in spite of our record of failure in many areas of public policy, we must keep trying. In particular, he emphasized the need for policies that sustained work. In his view, making work more attractive at the low end of the labor market is a building block for supporting families and communities. Some of the policies he has endorsed, such as elements of European welfare states, are anathema to conservatives, while others, such as workfare, are anathema to liberals.
Returning to Glazer helps one retain or regain (such as the case may be) his or her sense of proportion in today’s intellectual climate where uncompromising styles of thinking too often predominate. The intellectual virtues that he has embodied, his exceptionally curious mind and engaging prose style are things one can only wish were more frequently emulated.
Be that as it may, perhaps Glazer’s two most important legacies are, first, his enduring interpretation of the processes of immigrant integration in the United States, which deeply plumbs the meaning of e pluribus unum, and, second, reviving and making respectable a sort of Burkean conservatism, which holds that society is a complex, policy solutions crafted by government planners rarely have their intended effects, and that culture makes a difference. In cast of mind if not in politics, he’s a neoconservative to the end.