Christopher Lasch’s Quarrel with Liberalism 8

Because the subject is dismissed altogether from The True and Only Heaven, rights have no place in the book’s account of the Southern civil rights movement, and this seems a telling omission. For what saves Lasch’s populist tradition from being merely a bouquet of the values left strewn in the wake of progress is his contention that the populist spirit continues to have a life in real communities. Since the South has been the breeding ground for many populist politicians in this century, and since the South was itself a classic example of antiliberal “particularism”—”the preindustrial society par excellence,” as Lasch once called it one would have expected him to give special attention to the character of Southern life. But prominent Southern populists go almost unmentioned in The True and Only Heaven. Huey Long’s name, for ex¬ample, appears only twice, in lists of the sort of people liberals unfairly associate with populism. George Wallace turns up more of¬ten; but although Lasch seemed to disapprove of the politics of resentment Wallace practiced during his days as a segregationist, his remarks on Wallace were otherwise not unkind, and he noted Wallace’s eventual acceptance of racial integration approvingly as testimony to the ability of one local ethnic constituency—lower- middle-class Southern whites—to respond to a moral appeal from another.

It is true that the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56, which is where the modern civil rights movement began, is one of the noblest political events in American history, and that it was made possible by the religious faith of a lower-class ethnic community— Southern blacks—essentially untouched by legalistic ways of thinking. But it is not true, as Lasch suggested it is, that the boycotters’ victory, or the victories in other civil rights campaigns in the South, came about because lower-middle-class Southern whites under¬stood the justice of the blacks’ moral appeal. Southern whites did not take a notable part in the Montgomery protest except to oppose it and to humiliate and harass its participants. The protest succeeded because on the day a local judge issued the injunction that would have broken the boycott, the Supreme Court ruled that the black citizens of Montgomery had the right to sit where they chose on city buses. There was no “local solution” to the problem of racial segregation in the South because the principle at stake was not a local principle.

Lasch was always at his most acerbic in his criticism of middle- class liberals who impose the values of their culture on lower- middle-class communities and families, and he had much to say in his discussion of subjects like the busing controversy and the abortion debate about the attitude of moral superiority some liberals assume toward the less educated people who oppose them. There is indeed some ugliness in the middle-class attitudes he described; but to take note of the ugliness does not dispose of the matter.

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Back in the 1960s, a group of filmmakers, Drew Associates, was invited by the Kennedy administration to film its enforcement of the court-ordered desegregation of the University of Alabama—the incident that culminated in George Wallace’s famous “stand in the schoolhouse door.” The film that was produced, Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, covers events both at the White House and in Alabama. It is sometimes shown on public television, and it dramatizes the cultural friction Lasch writes about. Robert Ken¬nedy, in the White House, and his deputy, Nicholas DeB. Katzen- bach, in Alabama—Ivy League liberals, supremely assured of their virtue are seen discussing their strategy for handling Wallace as though Wallace were an inconvenient road hazard, a man, in their calculus, of no moral account whatever. And Wallace is seen arriv¬ing at the university and accepting expressions of support from the people waiting to greet him with the easy familiarity of a man who knows them and is part of a genuine community.

Wallace was as successful a populist as the postwar era produced, and the Kennedy administration was undoubtedly the incarnation of the modern liberal mentality as Lasch conceives it. There is something slightly chilling about the confrontation, as there is when you watch any ancient and deeply rooted thing smoothly and expertly obliterated by the forces of “progress.” But Kennedy and Katzenbach were right, and Wallace was wrong.

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