The Magazine

The Good(?) Old Days

The postwar cultural consensus was not so stable.

Feb 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 20 • By JAMES SEATON
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The indisputable achievement of American society in the second half of the 20th century was surely the ending of legally authorized discrimination against African Americans. Among the overwhelming majority of Americans who glory in this achievement, however, there is a not-inconsiderable number who feel a curious nostalgia for the 1950s, a time when the modern civil rights movement was just beginning. 

Reinhold Niebuhr (1956)

Reinhold Niebuhr (1956)

Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

Looking back from the 21st century, the 1950s can be seen as a time when religion was respected, good manners were the rule rather than the exception in public life, and there was a shared agreement about fundamentals. George Marsden emphasizes the special appeal of the 1950s for cultural conservatives: It was, after all, not so long ago when “traditional Judeo-Christian standards, such as monogamous, heterosexual marriage, were the dominant public norms.” 

In this thoughtful new book, however, Marsden warns, “There is no going back to the 1950s, when a widely shared inclusivist faith was supposed to be a contributing factor in supporting a cultural consensus.” His careful analyses of the thought of such fifties eminences as Walter Lippmann, Reinhold Niebuhr, and David Riesman make it clear that the apparent “cultural consensus” of the fifties was unstable from the beginning. 

Lippmann called for the revival of a “public philosophy” but was unwilling to return to the strong conception of natural law that was the only possible basis for such a revival. Niebuhr contrasted the shallow optimism of John Dewey’s pragmatism with the realistic view of human nature expressed by the Christian concept of original sin. But Marsden points out that “the intensity of Niebuhr’s disagreement with Dewey and pragmatic social scientists is best understood as, in a sense, a family quarrel. Niebuhr, too, was an avowed pragmatist.” It was not difficult for “atheists for Niebuhr” to adopt his realism in foreign policy while entirely ignoring his Christian faith. David Riesman’s notion of the contemporary “other-directed” individual, as opposed to the more autonomous “inner-directed” person of earlier times, became famous. But the cultural effect of the concern for individuality led to a new consensus. 

As Marsden points out: “Everyone, it seemed, agreed that one should not be a conformist.” The belief that conformity was the greatest social evil was so pervasive, Marsden avers, that “the authority of the autonomous individual” was recognized as the ultimate court of appeal on any issue—political, cultural, and moral—that could not be settled by the era’s other supreme authority, “the scientific method.” 

Marsden does not discuss Lionel Trilling, probably the most influential literary critic of the 1950s, but Trilling’s very attempt to subject fashionable cultural trends to analysis proves Marsden’s point. When Trilling, looking back in 1965, criticized with prophetic insight what he called “the adversary culture” for its relentless insistence that the “primary function of art and thought is to liberate the individual from the tyranny of his culture .  .  . and to permit him to stand beyond it in an autonomy of perception of judgment,” he was unable to find any other basis for his critique than autonomy itself. “We cannot count upon the adversary culture to sustain us in such efforts toward autonomy of perception and judgment as we might be impelled to make.”

George Marsden, with the advantage of a half-century of experience, shrewdly notes the limitations of the ideal of autonomy, observing that its unqualified affirmation implied “that one should leave the petty constraints of one’s community of origin, and become a law onto oneself.” Yet it is precisely “subcommunities, often ethnic and/or religious in nature,” that (argues Marsden persuasively) provide the moral grounding that might enable an individual to stand apart from the national consensus about the supremacy of the scientific method, or even, paradoxically, the celebration of individuality itself.

Neither the authority of the scientific method nor the cult of autonomy provided the grounding for the most impressive moral force of the era, the civil rights movement led by (among others) Martin Luther King. Although the intellectual leaders of the fifties were almost unanimous in applauding the goals of the movement, they were also of one mind in rejecting the notion of objective, God-given standards for distinguishing right from wrong. Yet, as Marsden observes, it was precisely King’s “bedrock conviction that moral law was built into the universe” that “gave such widely compelling force to [his] leadership and oratory.” Marsden notes that, although later movements—“particularly [those for] women’s rights, gay rights, and rights for other minorities”—have echoed King’s “rhetoric of justice and equality,” they have dropped King’s commitment to universal standards of right and wrong in favor of “the frameworks of identity politics.”

If it is impossible to return to the 1950s, and if a return would in any case fail to solve our contemporary problems, then what are we to do? In particular, what role can religion play in the culture of the 21st century? Marsden rejects the “polarizing dichotomies” utilized by culture warriors on both the secular left and the Christian right: The goal, he argues, should be “a more fully inclusive pluralism,” in which there will no longer be “prejudice against religiously based views simply because of their religious nature.” 

Noting approvingly that “during the past few decades, there has been increasing recognition of the need to address the problem of religious pluralism in relation to the public domain,” Marsden comes to the conclusion that “the message here .  .  . is simply that such discussions need to continue.” And if some voices are unfairly silenced or stigmatized, Marsden nominates “university administrators and academic departments” to serve as “referees, ensuring that all responsible voices .  .  . get a hearing.”

Marsden rightly notes that a careful study of prominent intellectuals of the 1950s reveals a “contrast between the perceptiveness of their diagnoses and the inadequacies of their prescriptions.” Unfortunately, the same could be said of The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, with its acute analyses and its underwhelming conclusion. 

It is hard to believe that the same author could provide such thoughtful analyses of the cultural past and then, as part of his proposed solution, call upon “university administrators and academic departments” to act as “referees” to ensure that all “responsible voices” are able to speak. 

Academic administrators and professors have been “refereeing” speech for some time now, but the result has not been a renewed cultural pluralism but rather the reign of political correctness using the slogans of multiculturalism and diversity.

James Seaton, professor of English at Michigan State, is the editor of George Santayana’s The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States