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.