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Angry Fourth-of-July Blog


Angry Fourth-of-July Blog

Today’s blog is about something I read this morning that made me angry, and that has been bothering me all day, so that I feel compelled to write a blog and get my anger out into the open. What I read was the lead editorial in this morning’s NYTimes, written by  Kurt Andersen, evidently a popular novelist and essayist whose writings, however, I haven’t read, excepting maybe a stray New Yorker piece or two. His editorial is titled “The Downside of Liberty,” and makes what I take to be a totally misguided, deeply wrong-headed argument. He begins by telling how an audience member at a lecture he gave asked him: “Why had the revolution dreamed up in the late 1960s mostly been won on the social and cultural fronts--women’s rights, gay rights, black president, ecology, sex and drugs, rock ‘n’ roll--but lost in the economic realm, with old-school free-market ideas gaining traction all the time?” Andersen, having what he calls “an epiphany,” answered that it wasn’t contradictory at all, but all of a piece. “For hippies and bohemians as for businesspeople and investors, extreme individualism has been triumphant. Selfishness won.” A kind of “grand bargain” was reached by which “the youthful masses of every age would be permitted as never before to indulge their self-expressive and hedonistic impulses. But capitalists in return would be unshackled as well, free to indulge their own animal spirits with fewer and fewer fetters in the form of regulations, taxes or social opprobrium.”

It’s hard to imagine a more false and pernicious equation than this. I looked up Andersen on the internet, and learned, as I expected, that he was born in 1954 in Omaha, Nebraska, and so was too young to know what was going on in the 1960s, and far away from the action. Nobody who was an active and reasonably open-minded academic-intellectual in Berkeley in the 1960s, as I was--still a fairly young professor, engaged enough with the new movement and close enough to students who were more actively engaged to be able to understand and appraise it--nobody around here then could have made this profound blunder. My own belief about the relationship of the two large trends Andersen writes about, expressed several times in my writings, is that even as we watched with pleasure and approval the new opening up of American society, or big segments of it, we feared also that there would be a backlash--and so there was: Reagan, Nixon, the lifting of curbs on predatory capitalism, and so on, down to George W. Bush and the awful eyes-wide-open blunders and misdeeds that have brought us down to where we are now. This was no “grand bargain,” but the opening up of an age of open warfare.

I trust that a great many other people of a certain age will see the wrongness of what Andersen wrote, and that many will write protest letters, so that the Letters to the Editor columns tomorrow and after will be full of them. This, written rather for my website, is my angry and impassioned contribution to that collective refutation.

The profound difference between the movements or grand phenomena that Andersen tries to equate is simple and basic: the difference between do-your-own-thing attitudes that recognized also the rights of others and were careful not to infringe on them, and the all-for-me, to-hell-with-you attitudes that have motivated and enabled the Wall Streeters and one-percenters to amass their obscene fortunes--favoring (as more and more evidence reveals) gain for themselves and their companies over what is good for their investors--and all the rest. Of course there are exceptions, on both sides; but not enough to disturb the large pattern. Even when not overtly moralistic, the liberated young of the 60s and early 70s didn’t adopt a more-for-me-at-your-expense attitude either. And that is exactly what motivates the big-money people that Andersen mistakenly balance them with. A movement that still keeps some moral sense vs. one that has renounced it in the pursuit of self-enriching: what could be clearer. We could have had one without the other; that we fell victim to the second is the tragedy of our time.

All for now. I have another subject, based on an early-morning waking-up remembrance, that will be the subject of the next one. Hint: they were small, leather-covered, with a distinctive and not-unpleasant odor, and they did a lot to start my intellectual life off in a good direction. And their initials were L.L.L.

James Cahill, July 4th, 2012


P.S. In my previous, “Angry Fourth-of-July” blog, I predicted that the NYTimes would be receiving lots of angry letters from readers of the wrongheaded editorial by Kurt Andersen that appeared on their editorial page on July 4th. And today, sure enough, the Letters to the Editor section on their editorial page is headed by four of them, all making essentially the same point that I did: that Andersen’s argument “that left -wing social movements and right-wing economic greed are ‘flip sides of the same libertarian coin,’ forged in the late 1960s” (as one of them summarizes it) is deeply wrong because it ignores the huge contrast between the relative harmlessness of the one and the pernicious effects of the other. Three of the four are written by academics. They read like cut-down versions of longer letters, and are representative, I’m sure, of many more that could have been printed. I hope that Mr. Andersen and all the readers of his misdirected editorial receive the message: those of us who lived through that time know better than to believe his contention; we know that (as the first letter concludes) “Left and right libertarianism are conceptually similar, but not morally equivalent.”

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