Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Weigel on the continuing impact of the 1960s

Here's the intro and conclusion to George Weigel's provocative essay in First Things on the impact of the 1960s on today's politics and society. (The essay was derived from his William E. Simon lecture earlier this year.)

Weigel argues that "six moments" from the 1960s endure in a powerful way. In each case, he describes the events and ideas-- and then describes their influence 40-45 years later. (I'll share the six moments in succeeding posts.)

Campaigning for the French presidency last year, Nicolas Sarkozy ran hard against what Europeans still refer to as 1968, describing the post-1968 New Left as “immoral” and “cynical” and defining the choice before the French electorate in stark terms: “In this election, the question is whether the heritage of May ’68 should be perpetuated, or if it should be liquidated.” Evidently, French politics hasn’t yet discovered the warm fuzzies of the focus group.

Throughout the Western world, 1968 was a bad year, a moment in which history seemed to careen out of control. It was worse in Europe, and the impact of 1968 there was more profound. In Western Europe, the agitations of 1968 aimed to effect a deep rupture with the past, and if those who took to the Paris barricades failed politically, they succeeded culturally; the disspirited Western Europe that languishes in a crisis of civilizational morale today is a reflection of the exhausted politics of 1968—as Nicolas Sarkozy, Marcello Pera, Giuliano Ferrara, Joseph Ratzinger, and others have recognized.

Then, from France to America...

Still, the year is remembered differently in the United States. It was, to be sure, a terrible year, replete with political violence; but it is the 1960s as a whole, the entire Sixties, that has had an enduring impact on our culture and our politics.

The scope of Weigel's project here:

I don’t propose to revisit the question of whether what we call the Sixties was in fact born in the Fifties, or whether it unfolded its full plumage in that low decade, the Seventies. Rather, I want to examine six crucial moments in the Sixties with an eye to how they reshaped American political culture, with effects still being felt today. What a large segment of American political culture learned from those moments constitutes the issues-beneath-the-issues in 2008—and in that important sense, America is still fighting battles begun in the Sixties, like it or not....

Weigel's conclusion:

Taken together, these six moments suggest that something of enduring consequence happened to liberal politics, and thus to American political culture, during the Sixties. A politics of reason gave way to a politics of emotion and flirted with the politics of irrationality; the claims of moral reason were displaced by moralism; the notion that all men and women were called to live lives of responsibility was displaced by the notion that some people were, by reason of birth, victims; patriotism became suspect, to be replaced by a vague internationalism; democratic persuasion was displaced by judicial activism. Each of these consequences is much with us today. What one thinks about them defines the substratum of the politics of 2008, the issues-beneath-the-issues.

That this trajectory was unaffected by the victory of democracy and the free economy in the Revolution of 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Empire tells us something important about the post-Sixties phase of the story. Beginning in the late Sixties, American liberalism followed the path of the global Left, substituting social issues and lifestyle libertinism for its previous concerns with economics and participatory politics....

The transformation of the pragmatic, results-­oriented, rationalist liberalism of John F. Kennedy, first into the New Left and subsequently into postmodern American liberalism, put the imperial autonomous Self at the center of one pole of American public life, where it displaced the notion of the free and virtuous society as the goal of American democracy. This raises the most profound and urgent questions about the future. Can a common culture capable of sustaining institutions of self-governance be built out of a congeries of autonomous selves?...

The Sixties are indeed much with us—both for good and for ill. We should not forget that part of the Sixties that called the American people to live nobly in the defense and promotion of liberty, rightly understood. But the large question facing us today—the issue-beneath-the-issues in 2008—is whether the admirable legacy of the Sixties will win out over the less happy residues of that turbulent decade.


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