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Nostalgia For the Golden Days When Responsible Liberals Demanded Rhetorical Restraint

Newsweek's Ellis Cose not only accuses Tea Party movement conservatives of venomous rhetoric, but says the conservative establishment is complicit in their excesses.  By contrast, he says, when the wild rhetoric 40 years ago came from groups like Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panthers, "respectable liberals denounced the radical fringe. Now the Republican establishment quietly acquiesces. And the right-wing media egg it on."

I'm eager to learn more about those respectable liberals and their denunciations of the radical fringe. I graduated from high school in 1972, and was nerdy enough to read a lot of political journalism in those days, but young enough to have been capable of misunderstanding much of it.  So maybe it's just me.  But the thing is, I don't recall any clear examples of respectable liberals in politics, journalism or academia standing up to the various left-wing extremists of that era and saying, forcefully and unequivocally, "What you people are doing and saying is ugly, and stupid, and wrong.  You should be ashamed of yourselves."

The fact that I don't know any clear examples of the brave stands taken by the liberal establishment in those days doesn't mean there aren't any.  NLT readers with better memories or research skills than mine are invited to submit entries in the Stalwart Liberal Rhetoric Competition. I would be glad to read and know of them.

I would be especially glad because my memory and research skills are up to the task of finding strong entrants in the Feckless and Craven Liberal Rhetoric Competition. The historian Arthur Schlesinger, to take a leading example, spent a long career as a public intellectual, one whose pronouncements on any controversy or politician were widely regarded as the best indicator of the liberal consensus. His denunciations were not the type to keep the radical fringe up at night, wondering if they had gotten it all terribly wrong.  Schlesinger's take on the student protests that shut down some of the nation's most famous universities in the 1960s was even-tempered: "Both Berkeley and Columbia will be wiser and better universities as a result of the student revolts."

This is the tone of the liberal establishment I remember - not rebuking the crazies for their excesses, but sympathizing with their aims, grievances and "idealism."  Rather than play the part of the grown-ups, admonishing young activists for indefensible words and deeds, liberals in that era could be counted on to cozy up to the angriest factions of the New Left.  The rebukes, in fact, were often delivered to young people who weren't radical enough.  In his biography of Robert Kennedy, Schlesinger recorded approvingly that Robert Kennedy lashed out in 1967 at some college students who wanted the U.S. military to try harder to win the Vietnam war his brother had escalated: "Don't you understand that what we are doing to the Vietnamese is not very different than what Hitler did to the Jews?"

Similarly, a 1970 review of a book on the Black Panthers in The Nation would have embarrassed your run-of-the-mill sycophant:

The Black Panther Party is, by any definition, a revolutionary group, one which is attempting to find - and to a surprising extent has succeeded in finding - revolutionary political theories which are applicable to the condition of black people in America today, particularly in urban America.  Its synthesis of Mao and Malcolm, Fanon and Lenin (with the important addition of [Eldridge] Cleaver's and [Huey] Newton's own contributions) is no street hoodlum's hodgepodge but a careful winnowing of political thought. Their analysis of the role of the police in white repression is accurate and brilliant.

It was a privilege, apparently, to be terrorized by such erudite thugs.

Conservatives should indeed denounce fellow conservatives who say ugly, inexcusable things.  Our guide for doing so will not be, as Ellis Cose imagines, the brave and admirable actions of liberals 40 years ago.  Instead, it should be the brave and admirable actions liberals never took when it counted, but are proud to fantasize about having taken decades after the fact.
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Discussions - 8 Comments

He surely had in mind Mayor Daley during the Democratic convention riots of 1968.

But Daley was reviled by liberals for what he said and what the Chicago police did in 1968. Liberals hated Daley so much that they were delighted to prevent him and the regular Democrats from being seated as delegates at the 1972 Democratic convention, even though they had to realize it would only hurt George McGovern in the general election.

Hard to beat Tom Wolfe on this subject, no?

I wasn't around for the New Left's grand tantrums, but it seems absolutely ludicrous to venture back 40 years when the left engaged in overheated rhetoric throughout the Bush presidency and show no signs of abating yet. They display a bewildering lack of self-awareness which can only be explained by their insularity.

I was doing competitive speech in high school in those years, including debate, extemporaneous, and inpromptu. All three required that we read in detail, Time, Newsweek, and U.S News and World Report. We carried hundreds of issues with us to every meet, and studied them aggressively. I don't recall any attempt by left leaning politicians to condemn , or even criticize, the radicals. I do remember Dan Rather taking a swing at a secret service agent and getting " shellacked" for his trouble. Great beatdown! But to your point, There was no attempt to rein in the radicals.

I suspect an exhaustive study of the subject would reveal that members of the professoriate and the body of elected officials who attempted resistance were regarded with derision (see Garry Wills treatment of the historian Orest Ranum) or regarded as tainted thereafter (Henry Jackson, Sidney Hook) or both (Nathan Pusey).

It occurs to me that the historian Richard Hofstaeder supposedly wrote scathing critiques of the campus left 'ere his death in 1970. The priest/sociologist Andrew Greeley was retrospectively dismissive, maintaining that the New Left had no achievements to its credit because it provoked a counter-mobilization in support of causes it opposed; whether he did jack at the University of Chicago at that time he fails to say. Irving Howe was also critical. I think Howe's publication had a circulation of about 9,000 at that time.

As for genteel establishment liberals like Rather and, yes, Hofstader, no way. But yes, a man like Howe gave the campus left a thorough spanking. Perhaps not exactly on the topic of civil discourse...

And yet, part of the whole gig of those times was to ever jump ahead into the most avant position of the avante gardes, with the smug and largely correct assumption that at the very least, this would pull the acceptable center leftward. Yeah, the likes of the Weatherman can make the politics of a John Lennon look moderate.

Bayard Rustin almost had the guts and brains to really give it to the black power folks when it would have made a difference circa 67-69, but my overall impression is he wimped out. Alas.

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