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Man of Distinction

Democracy and the Student Left

by George Kennan
Bantam, 224 pp., $1.25 (paperback) (paper)

George Kennan’s famous controversy with the students, consisting of his speech at Swarthmore College, numerous replies by students and teachers, and his own reply to the replies—all published in the paperback Democracy and the Student Left—revolves around two issues: Mr. Kennan’s idea of what a university should be; and his reflections on the behavior and attitudes of the rebellious students in their reactions to the war in Vietnam, the draft, racism, and other issues.

The interest of the debate lies in the light it throws on Mr. Kennan as a controversialist. This is complex and fascinating. Mr. Kennan takes up an aristocratic position against rebellious plebeian opponents whom he condemns with curling Roman lip, condescending only occasionally to some bleak expressions of sympathy with them. He talks always from the standpoint of values so radiant that several of those who argue against him do so with protestations of pain and compunction, torn between their feelings of disagreement with, and their admiration for, him. Others, like Lucifer confronted by the Almighty, are provoked to blasphemy and obscenity.

One suspects that for Mr. Kennan the most decisive consideration is really style, to which he attaches an exalted importance, and in which he finds the students so remarkably deficient:

…Another characteristic of this generation of students is of even broader significance and presents a particularly sharp contrast to the student population of my own day. This is the lack of interest in the creation of any real style and distinction of personal life generally. While this often finds its expression most strikingly in dress, it goes much deeper and enters into manners, tidiness, physical environment and even personal hygiene. The idea that life could be made richer, more tolerable and enjoyable, and even perhaps more useful socially, by an emphasis on the being as well as the doing, by a cultivation of the amenities, by the creation of a dignified and attractive personal environment; the recognition that if great masses of people are to be elevated out of degradation or vulgarity it is important that some people should set an example of graciousness and good taste; the thought that one might even gain strength as an individual and communicate some of it to his intimate entourage by lending to his personal life qualities that sustain confidence in the very possibility of a rich, wholesome and unsordid human experience: all this seems to be quite foreign to the writers of these letters.

One might disagree with this and yet agree that it is true from his point of view, by which I mean the angle of his style. This angle might be described as statuesque. One would scarcely expect Mr. Kennan, standing on a column and crying out as it were to become chiseled immortality, to notice that many of the letters written to him about his article were extremely polite, several of the writers even proclaiming that to them he represented the ideal. Still less would one expect him to see that a most striking characteristic of the young is their search for a style. For to him, a style not fitting his description is no style, any more than a university not according with Woodrow Wilson’s account of “a place removed—calm Science seated there, recluse, ascetic, like a nun; not knowing that the world passes, not caring, if the truth but come in answer to her prayer…” is a university.

All the same the young do have a style, which may be as much a key to their rhetoric as Mr. Kennan’s is a key to his. Their style is evident in their beards, their long hair, the medallions they wear, their garb, sometimes like sack-cloth, sometimes like fanoy dress. Many observers in Paris noticed that the rebellious students had the expression and gestures of characters in scenes from the French Revolution or the Commune, depicted by David or Daumier. Looking at the British student variety of Beatles, Beatniks, Hippies so unlike the conventional English gentlemen of the first half of this century, I have found myself wondering, perhaps too fancifully, whether the welfare state young people are not Rip Van Winkles who have woken up after two hundred years’ sleep of the Industrial Revolution, during which they were confined in the iron and brick industrial Black country. Now they stretch, yawn, and parade down the streets, with long hair and beards and wearing necklaces and jewels, much as they might have done in King Charles’s Golden Days or on the village greens of Merrie England.

A style, of course, has no tolerance of another style, except in so far as a certain charity (this happens with Mr. Kennan) is part of the style. Mr. Kennan’s true style is either exalted or satiric. It is incapable of being conciliatory however much the author would like it to be. It is revealed in his description of some hippie whom he takes to be typical of his generation as “a perverted and stony-hearted youth, by whose destructiveness we are all, in the end, to be damaged and diminished”—an account not without a touch of mordant truth. The description has the bite of one style condemning another. Unfortunately it rings truer than the wish, later expressed by Mr. Kennan, that “we and they—experience on the one hand, strength and enthusiasm on the other—could join forces.” Mr. Kennan seems incapable of expressing such a sentiment without sounding a bit absurd, Naturally the exponents of the other style (non-style to him) regard this as rank hypocrisy, which as we shall see, it isn’t entirely.

Mr. Kennan is so dominated by his style that it becomes as it were a medium—like light through stained glass—that colors everything seen through it. Sometimes it throws things into sharp illumination, sometimes it renders things unreal, sometimes it adds passionate warmth to the landscape. It is always dramatic. One can usually make allowance for these stage effects. For instance one understands very well that for him a university is a floodlit ivory tower, and he will have none other. When, in his concluding thoughts, he suggests that perhaps we should envisage there being two universities, one all cloistral calm and another “one uninterrupted current affairs course, consisting primarily of off-campus field work, participation in demonstrations, social work, political organizational activity, etc., punctuated occasionally by reading periods devoted to the pages of daily newspapers and weekly news magazines and to seminars on the burning problems of the day and the techniques of mass political action…,” he can only pour scorn on the idea of the “involved” university and produce a caricature of it which, in the terms of his style, is very amusing. This, however, opens up little prospect of his “experience” and their “strength and enthusiasm” joining forces.

A result of Mr. Kennan being trapped in his style is, sometimes, an apparent contradiction between his idea of what is decorous and the implications of the liberal political views which he holds. From his speech, it is rather difficult to remember—despite his reminders—that he himself is an opponent of the war in Vietnam, which, indeed he describes here as “a foolish messy war,” “conducted halfway round the world.” For much as he disapproves of the war he disapproves still more of people whose protest against it takes forms to which he objects. Sometimes this leads to an effect of self-parody. He points out in his concluding remarks that he has spent five hours on television speaking against the war. Yet if some unfortunate student, having listened to Mr. Kennan being exalted on this (for him) improbable medium (and at such length) had been converted to his objections to the war, and, accordingly, had refused to be drafted into an enterprise denounced with all Mr. Kennan’s superb moral authority, Mr. Kennan would have objected on two counts: in the first place to his having drawn his conclusions on the basis of listening to a mere five hours of Mr. Kennan’s rhetoric, when he should have devoted years of secluded study to the complex problem; and in the second place to his having taken Mr. Kennan so seriously as actually to refuse to be drafted into a war denounced by Mr. Kennan.

Some student wrecking activities are of course very suitable objects for Mr. Kennan’s satiric scorn, and his plea for studies unrelated to contemporary affairs (not that these are seriously threatened on more than one or two campuses) commands respects. The trouble though is that he makes little distinction between students wrecking the university and making it impossible for those who do not share their politics to pursue their studies, and their performing illegal acts which seem to them their only means of protest against the war. And just as he makes almost no distinction between vandalism and the extremer forms of conscientious objection, so he appears to assume that the students opposed to Vietnam all combine “massive certainties” with failure to study the complexities of the problem. His rhetoric floats over all the teach-ins and volumes like The Vietnam Reader prepared especially for students and giving views on the war, ranging from those of Lyndon B. Johnson to Tom Hayden’s and Staughton Lynd’s reports on their visit to Hanoi.

To judge from the letters written in answer to Mr. Kennan’s speech, the opportunity for a dialogue with a great scholar in contemporary affairs, whose political views are in fact remarkably similar to those of many of the anti-Vietnam anti-military-and- industrial-complex students, is lost largely because Mr. Kennan has no patience with their impatience and with their style or lack of style.

If Mr. Kennan really wished to find common ground on which to meet the students, that might have been reached in a discussion of the time in which changes can be made. He is forever calling the students “impatient” but if the reader tries to ascertain how patient he thinks they ought to be, with regard to the draft, for example, the answer is perhaps contained in this sentence (my italics):

The best thing the government could do, when this miserable war is over, would be to revise basically the entire system governing the relationship between the young male American and his obligation of military service.

But until the miserable war is over, the young have to be drafted and if they have moral objections to the war they are told that “they have put themselves under the obligation of saying in what way the political system should be modified, or what should be established in the place of it, to assure that its workings would bear a better relationship to people’s needs and feelings.”

It is obvious that Mr. Kennan operates mentally on one timetable and the students on another. Mr. Kennan’s timetable has dates on it which say that whatever is approved by the government which is democratically elected, even if it means the hour by hour cruelty, waste, and sacrifice of “a miserable war.” cannot be revoked until those who object can persuade a majority of their fellow citizens to change the American political system. The reply of the majority of those who wrote in answer to Mr. Kennan’s speech was in essence that their protest was one of conscience against evil, against people murdering and being murdered, and that in these circumstances to wait on democratic procedures was to permit further cruelty, waste, and destruction.

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