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The need for big ideas

29/02/2012

Fifty years ago, liberals and radicals were eager and able to think big. Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, sparked a campaign to defend and develop diverse urban neighborhoods. In 1962, Michael Harrington’s The Other America, with its startling revelations about the depth and extent of poverty, as well as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the first environmental best-seller, appeared. That summer, a band of twentysomethings, led by Tom Hayden, produced the “Port Huron Statement,” the manifesto of the white New Left, which offered participatory democracy as the antidote to an over-managed, bureaucratic society. Then, in 1963, James Baldwin’s angry yet hopeful The Fire Next Time branded racism “a recipe for murder”; and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique provided a candid, stirring diagnosis of female submission which helped galvanize the fledgling women’s movement.

The prose in all these works was forceful and often eloquent in its urgency. “Our work is guided by the sense that we may be the last generation in the experiment with living,” wrote Hayden and his comrades. Friedan’s “problem that has no name” would soon acquire one, sexism, which identified a set of grievances shared by millions of women. All six authors did much to set the agenda for the American Left, broadly defined, for the next two decades and more. Every major social movement echoed some or all of their ideas, and Democrats in the White House or with aspirations to live there had to respond. So why, a half-century later, has no one emulated these authors’ achievements?

Part of the answer, of course, is that American politics has marched decisively rightward since the 1970s and turned liberals into a defensive breed. The most prominent liberal writers—Paul Krugman, for example—now dedicate themselves to defending the reforms enacted from FDR to LBJ’s administration and rebutting free-market fantasies, rather than proposing fresh models or theories. The best-known radicals—like Michael Moore or Naomi Klein—produce witty critiques of global capitalism, but they lack both a credible alternative and a sensible strategy to achieve it. Perhaps another Hayden or Baldwin will emerge from the ranks of the Occupy protestors. But so far, that movement has generated memorable slogans rather than persuasive statements. It’s hard today to invoke a sustained passion for beginning the world over again.

The present cultural environment also discourages writers from attempting the kind of lucid, extended essays about “social problems” that were the basis of those landmark books from the early 1960s. Not a single one of the now-famous authors from that era had earned a Ph.D. But today, most intellectuals on the left hold academic jobs, and the pressure to write primarily for one’s peers is hard to resist. Professors who do break from the pack tend to produce syntheses of existing knowledge fit for a PBS special instead of seeking to engage the public with original ideas and compelling prose. Or they throw themselves into an activism of the moment—narrowing their role as critics to giving speeches, drafting op-eds, and appearing on cable television.

The screeching sirens of celebrity-making abet this process as well, turning an elegant, if sometimes polemical, writer like Christopher Hitchens into a star whose personality threatened to outshine his work. So too does a media universe that prizes the quick and the clever while frowning on serious but artfully written pieces whose authority depends on the thick description of people and the structures within which they must live and work.

Some influential thinkers on the left have argued that, amid the current rage for austerity, there is no time or role for visionary thinkers. In one of his last works, Tony Judt soberly wrote, “imperfect improvements upon unsatisfactory circumstances are the best that we can hope for, and probably all that we should seek.” Against a dogmatic Right, equipped with almost unlimited funds, defending the limited welfare state will, argue Judt and others, be quite hard enough.

But the bullheadedness of the Right is precisely why big, original ideas by liberal and radical writers are needed. Conservatives gained ideological dominance by proudly declaring their principles and criticizing the Left for having the wrong ones or none at all. From Hayek to Friedman to Kristol to Murray, their intellectuals fashioned a bold, if simplistic, world-view that has endured and often prospered, despite their politicians’ inept governance and duplicitous attitude toward spending and taxes.

This fall, progressives who rally behind Obama may stave off the latest assault on programs that the majority of Americans want and need. But they will have to continue waging the same defensive struggle unless they change the questions under debate. Certainly, the problems we face today are no less urgent or difficult than they were a half-century ago: How to spur growth and minimize poverty, while preserving the environment? How to combat the armies of fundamentalism that imperil the freedoms and security of their own citizens? How to create jobs for women and men who will never have a profession but should not have to spend their days in peril or boredom? Intellectuals obviously cannot resolve these questions by themselves. But only with the aid of talented, visionary writers will they gain the attention they deserve. Then, perhaps, what Michael Harrington called “the left wing of the possible” might again become a thrilling as well as a useful place to be.

Cross-posted from the New Republic