The Vitiated Center

The successful failures of right and left intellectuals.

The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times, by Jeffrey Hart, Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 394 pages, $28

The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual, by Eric Lott, New York: Basic Books, 260 pages, $26

Two new books detail, and sometimes lament, the recent history of liberal and conservative ideas in America: Eric Lott's The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual and Jeffrey Hart's The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times. Together, they explore the perils and possibilities of radical ideologies in a centrist nation.

Lott, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, argues that prominent liberal intellectuals in the Clinton era and beyond have smothered any truly revolutionary leftist radicalism. Hart, a retired Dartmouth English professor and longtime National Review hand, relates the saga of conservatism's flagship magazine along with the history of the American right the magazine shaped. In Hart's telling, the "responsible" center-right philosophy of James Burnham, a co-founder of the magazine whose reputation has been eclipsed by that of his more affable colleague William F. Buckley, guided the journal's worldly success. Burnham, Hart argues, ensured that the magazine eschewed "unrealistic" conservative or libertarian radicalism. This approach aided its surface success but guaranteed that NR's stated mission to 'stand athwart history, yelling stop" would fail.

Lott's book would most aptly be titled The Sellout Liberal Intellectual. For Lott, liberal boomer intellectuals such as Paul Berman (author of A Tale of Two Utopias, a popular '90s attack on the radicalism of the '60s left) and Todd Gitlin (a Students for Democratic Society president in the '60s and now a lamenter of modern leftists' lack of patriotism) have betrayed the '60s legacy of radicalism to which all boomer liberals ought to pledge allegiance. In Lott's telling, their attacks on the supposedly anti-American and identity-obsessed radical enemies to their left merely reinforce a corrupt status quo. While these liberal reformists fancy they speak truth to power from the pages of The New Republic and The American Prospect, to Lott they are "one of the chief obstacles to a reconstruction of social and political life in the twenty-first century United States."

Lott, a late boomer himself at age 47 but too young to have made the '60s scene, comes on like a new-generation leftist young gun. White but professionally an African-American studies maven, he shoots down elders he sees as sclerotic, ultimately ineffectual, and obsessed with pursuing what Lott mocks as "Utopian Clintonism": universal health care, more cash for Head Start, campaign finance reform, yada yada yada. That ameliorist nonsense is no cure for America's real problems, which to Lott have something to do with the fact that some people have more money than others.

When it comes to his own policy prescriptions, Lott is somewhat cagey. He reveals only a couple of times, and as asides, that he's for the People's Choice ideology of anarcho-syndicalism, from which arises his occasional libertarian-sounding swipes at his liberal enemies for their "accommodation of state power" and his declaration that "in the realm of even the most benevolent state there are nothing butcrimes."

Despite such flashes of anti-statism, Lott is mostly obsessed with finding true power for the people through race and other identity-politics categories. The boomer liberal intellectuals, Lott complains, want to retreat to their beloved pre-1968 leftism of economics and class, and to ignore race, gender, and sexuality.

But activists of race, gender, and sexuality need a power center as well, and Lott improbably offers labor unions as the agent of social change. While this book is, by design, mostly concerned with academic conferences and journals and big-think books about the state of contemporary liberalism, Lott's out-of-nowhere epilogue drags revolutionary praxis onstage: His soul is ennobled when he marches on the quad with local activist groups to squeeze out a raise for some University of Virginia employees, stuck in what Lott calls the "unspeakably grisly routine" of feeding babies to the dean's pet cougar? Coal mining over the corpses of their fellow workers to stoke the dorm furnaces? No: food service and secretarial work.

As befits the author of Love and Theft (1994), Lott's much-honored first book (a study of the intersections of race and class consciousness in American labor history through minstrelsy), Lott thinks Blackness is the most vital aspect of the American experience. He thinks Americans talk, walk, and are "significantly black." He sees white racism and exploitation driving the great American behemoth.

To learn why harping on race and racism might not be the answer to the political left's dilemma, Lott might profitably check himself (before he wrecks himself). He mocks Paul Berman for attacking the Black Panthers yet neither debunks Berman's reports of their rampant thuggery nor tries to balance them against some larger good the Panthers have supposedly done. (Lott doesn't even say what that good might have been.) He also thinks videotaped beating victim Rodney King took the "moral low ground" by calling for us all to get along. To Lott, conflict should dominate American life until the last capitalist is strangled with the entrails of the last bourgeois liberal intellectual.

Lott mocks Richard Rorty, another boomer liberal and a villain whose beating in this book is incommensurate with his actual public importance, for "mak[ing] no gesture toward any real notion of how to achieve economic redistribution, except to pass a law for it." But Lott himself can't even manage that much realism. In a nation where almost everyone is getting wealthier (even if not at the same rate), Lott shies from articulating his ultimate goal except in the vaguest way; he just says he's for radical egalitarianism and radical democracy. He certainly won't articulate how we're to get there. Wading through rivers of blood, perhaps" Or just inspiring a race-, gender-, and sexuality-conscious mass labor movement to grab hold of the means of production?

Objective reality, political or economic, gives way to ideological fantasy. At one point Lott declares that black kids in Harlem and Sudan both "labor under the unequal burdens of the same fallen world" of transnational capitalism. He should go ask any of the Sudanese if they are interested in trading places with the Harlem residents; surely even he wouldn't be surprised at the results of that particular experiment in radical democracy and egalitarianism. Such blindness to the benefits of Western quasi-capitalist modernity is surely more to blame for radical leftist ineffectuality than any number of Clintonian baby boomers.

Lott complains American liberalism isn't radical enough. In fact, his own radicalism, unmoored from history and economics, is self-defeating. Jeffrey Hart's history of the American right's leading journal shows the flipside of the American radical's dilemma: how hewing too doggedly to an acceptable centrism can weaken real effectiveness, even while creating a surface appearance of success.

National Review was founded in 1955 by a young William F. Buckley, fresh from the success of God and Man at Yale, his "J'accuse" against all the religion and tradition bashing at his alma mater. Buckley wanted to give shape and voice to an inchoate "conservative" intellectual movement, an uneasy anti-New Deal coalition at the time torn between F.A. Hayek's free market individualism and Russell Kirk's traditionalism, between faith in a free society and a panicked feeling that we had to crush international communism at all costs.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties