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The Banality of Liberalism

In response to:

Democratic Vistas from the September 30, 1965 issue

To the Editors:

…If the “Old Left” is too expert (“social critics”), and the New Left is not expert enough (“rebels”), what do we do? Professor Lasch calls for “better thinking, better scholarship” which will be provided by “intellectuals” and the students who have done so much to goad their teachers into action.” While I am unsure whether those intellectuals are also those goaded teachers or whether they are drawn from other occupational communities, it is not clear to me how their better scholarship will build to an understanding that is at once sound and inexpert. Does he want a better educated and therefore, perhaps, a better informed society? Probably not. He intends to “disregard the conventional distinction between ‘education‘ [my italics] and political agitation.” What about his emphasis on an international intellectualism? Can he be so naive as to think that any international polylogue of students and teachers would produce greater “moral” or “philosophical” unanimity than any other international conference has been able to do? The profound disagreements and petty squabbles of scholars and students in this country should suggest the more obvious limitations of this idea. Besides, why would such a “community” be helpful in talking about questions like the role of the expert in [our] government?…

E. Jeffrey Ludwig

Harvard University

Christopher Lasch replies:

Since Mr. Withey, in his clarion call, does not say what he wants us to do and initiate, I find it difficult to argue with him. He says intellectuals should stop talking just to each other. I do think they might talk to each other long enough to find out what is being said. When I advocated better scholarship, I wasn’t advocating more footnotes and quotations. I realize that it is hard for scholars—Mr. Withey included—to conceive of scholarship in any other terms; but that is just the point. I was trying to suggest that scholarship has to give up its pretensions to scientific objectivity and root itself in moral commitment.

Mr. Ludwig; like Professor Withey, persists in associating ideas which it was the purpose of my review to dissociate. His letter shows that scholarship has become so closely bound up with expertise that it is hard for people to imagine one without the other. It is not clear, he says, how better scholarship will be “at once sound and in-expert.” In other words, the scholar is by definition an expert in his field. But the highest act of scholarship isn’t making a “contribution” to one’s field, it is the application of scholarship to experience itself, the willingness to let one’s critical judgment inform one’s life—one’s political life in particular—instead of suspending it at the water’s edge of moral commitment. Perhaps it would clear things up if I said that some of the best scholars, in my opinion, are people who don’t even hold advanced degrees. Some of the activists in the civil rights movement, for instance—people who do things, Professor Withey—are capable of analytical flights that would be incomprehensible to most of our sociologists and political scientists.

Professor Seabury complains that I don’t explain what the contributors to The Crossroads Papers were trying to say. As a matter of fact, his own contribution. “America and the Communist Challenge,” is a particularly good example of the tendency I described in the book as a whole: it puts forth common-sense proposals (encouraging polycentricism in the world, not trying to force the Russians out of eastern Europe) without analyzing the forces in American life which prevent those proposals from being carried very far. Professor Seabury starts from the premise that the cold war is something that has been thrust upon us. “Certainly, no one could say that the United States started this quarrel.” But that assertion makes it impossible to understand what the quarrel is all about. Since 1945, the United States has acted as if its military supremacy enabled it to dictate its terms throughout the world, an attitude which other people find alarming and overbearing. I think that has something to do with the quarrel. But it is hard to see the point without trying to see America from the outside looking in—something that I gather doesn’t appeal to Professor Seabury.

He misunderstands my point about experts. I didn’t say he was a member of any “establishment,” and I didn’t say that he and his fellow-contributors were experts “by definition” of their connection with ADA or any other organization. I said they think like experts. That is, they confine themselves to small suggestions within the framework of an overriding assumption about American benevolence, without examining the assumption itself—which would be more interesting but harder to reconcile, I suppose, with the posture of scholarly detachment.

All three of these correspondents balk at what Seabury calls my “new categorical rabbit” (committed scholarship) as if it were some sort of argumentative gimmick I had thought up in order to chide liberals and radicals alike. The idea is not very novel or shocking; nor is the kind of scholarship I describe so difficult to distinguish from expertise on the one hand and revolutionary play-acting on the other. The distinction is obscure, I trust, only to academics.

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