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The Sixties According To Paul Berman from t yhtyh's blog

The utopian mentality . . . is withering away. Its intellectual status has sunk to the level of a pathetic adolescent gibberish surviving in leftist sects.—Leszek Kolakowski

Do I contradict myself?Very well then . . . I contradict myself;I am large . . . I contain multitudes.—Walt Whitman

Tiny flames of pure idealism went up. Everywhere the effect was intoxicating.—Paul Berman

A Tale of Two Utopias is an exceedingly odd book. Its thesis—but, no, it would be hardly fair to disclose that without first acclimating the reader to the vertiginous sentimentality that forms the atmosphere of Mr. Berman’s meditation on the fate of the utopian impulse. If the air is thin in the course of this “journey” it is nonetheless cloying—likewise the arguments, or what pass for arguments.

Mr. Berman is a disappointed radical. But his disappointments have not led him to abandon his radicalism. On the contrary, his disappointments have in a curious way become his radicalism. Perhaps it was this skillful feat of political alchemy that led the MacArthur Foundation to confer upon him one of its famous “genius” awards a few years ago. Among other things, that award ought to have reminded people of what the Austrian novelist Robert Musil had to say about a certain race-horse of genius.

In due course, Mr. Berman graduated to Columbia College and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which, despite its “special nuttiness,” delivered on its promise “to take young people who felt empty of identity and give them a sense of control over their own destiny.” For people who felt “offended by the soft life that was their own,” Mr. Berman explains, participation in the SDS and similar organizations filled an existential void. Politics in the ordinary sense was only part of the equation: the deliberately outlandish dress, music, and behavior that radical organizations in the 1960s fostered was also important: it all “generated an atmosphere of confrontation, which turned giddy and hot, which created a festival atmosphere.” Which led to the sit-ins, occupation of buildings, and charges of criminal trespassing. Then “off you went to jail, where for once you felt morally at peace.” And here we come to the emotional core of A Tale of Two Utopias. For out of that same festival atmosphere “came a few tiny indications that a new society, organized on novel principles, might at any moment burst into view.”

It was, naturally, “a superior new society.” And what made it all so irresistible was the belief, as Mr. Berman recounts, “that we ourselves—the teenage revolutionaries, freaks, hippies, and students, together with our friends and leaders who were five or ten years older and our allies around the world—stood at the heart of a new society.” “A society,” Mr. Berman expatiates, “of spiritual grandeur.”

Something soulful. A moral advance. And in the glow of the very grand and utopian idea, a thousand disparate events from around the world—the student uprisings, the hippie experiments, the religious transformations, the rise of Communism in some places and the first signs of its fall in other places, the Black Power movement, and onward through feminism and every insurrectionary impulse of the age—seemed to merge into a single tide.

Perhaps this is the place to mention that A Tale of Two Utopias does not come with a complimentary dose of Dramamine: readers must supply their own.

For all this, however, A Tale of Two Utopias is only intermittently autobiographical. In proposing to trace “the political journey of the generation of 1968,” Mr. Berman is at the same time tracing his own political itinerary. But only rarely does he speak in propria persona. When he alludes, say, to a “vague new sensibility” that “managed to be trembly with expectation” or conjures “the dream of a genuine socialism, uncorrupted, untyrannical, de-Stalinized, ultra-democratic,” he does so in the third person. In fact, A Tale of Two Utopias is a kind of spiritual-political credo disguised as a piece of intellectual history. Mr. Berman draws upon a motley agglomeration of persons and events in an effort to define a sensibility, the sensibility of a Sixties radical who is thoroughly disabused but not disillusioned. This imparts a certain schizoid quality to the book: Mr. Berman’s evidence points in one direction, all his rhetoric in the opposite direction. Ostensibly, he sets out to investigate the unhappy logic of revolutionary utopianism, which always begins in moralistic self-infatuation and infallibly ends in disaster. “Are we,” he asks, “to conclude that the idea of progress is the enemy of progress and that revolutionary exhilaration is drunkenness and folly, to be avoided at all cost?” The correct answer is “Yes,” at least to the second part of the question. But Mr. Berman can never quite bring himself to admit it. Instead, he spins a fantasy—this book is indeed a “tale”—about noble aspirations that, if momentarily fulfilled here and there, have mostly gone badly awry. And yet . . .

Although embedded in a maddeningly digressive mound of second-hand historical trivia—it is clear that Mr. Berman is used to being paid by the word—the basic argument of this book is as simple as it is preposterous: namely, that the fall of Communism and the still tenuous rise of liberal democracy in parts of Eastern Europe and elsewhere are the adult rerun of the radical movements of the 1960s. Yes, really. In the aftermath of 1989, Mr. Berman says, it suddenly became “obvious that those long-ago utopian efforts to change the shape of the world were a young people’s rehearsal, preparatory to adult events that only came later. Suddenly it was obvious that the authentic political revolution of our era was now, not then; liberal and democratic, not radical leftist in the ’68 style; real, not imaginary.” Obvious to him, that is. Contemplating the triumph of Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia (Havel is one of his heroes), he writes that

the old hope of reorganizing the world on a drastically new and infinitely more democratic basis, the universal project, the grand aspiration for the poor and the downtrodden, that hope, the forbidden utopian dream, once again seemed, in its newly liberal and anti-grandiose version—well, thinkable.

It’s utopianism on a fake diet. The moral is: Sixties radicals do not die; they are reborn https://www.kaydora.com/reborn-baby-boy-c0384as New Yorker writers and MacArthur Fellows.

This of course is putting it much more baldly than Mr. Berman deigns to do. Although A Tale of Two Utopias is very much a book with a thesis, it reads like what it is: four loosely knit essays united more by tone and sensibility than argument. Mr. Berman begins briefly enough with an introduction called “The Dream of a New Society.” He here provides an insider’s sketch of the “utopian exhilaration” that, he rightly notes, “swept across the student universe and across several adult universes as well” in and around 1968:

the student uprisings, the building occupations, marches, strikes, battles with the police, the insurrections that were sexual, feminist, and gay, the bursts of ecological passion, the noisy entrance of the first mass of African-American students into the previously segregated American universities, the slightly crazy effort to raise insubordination into a culture, to eat, dress, smoke, dance differently . . . 

Mr. Berman’s enthusiasm for what he accurately describes as “an insurrection in middle-class customs” is patent in every phrase. He is equally upbeat about the other Sixties revolutions he describes, the upsurge in pseudo-spirituality (not Mr. Berman’s term)—the “bits and pieces of Buddhism, Beat poetry, transcendentalism, Mexican folklore, psychedelic mind expansions, and God knows what else”—as well as various more overt political agitations against “Western imperialism” and, in a few scattered places, Communist tyranny. Little if anything in Mr. Berman’s discussion is new; the one element of novelty, here and throughout the book, is to present what is essentially a recapitulation as if it were a studied reassessment.

Consider Mr. Berman’s ambitiously titled first chapter, “The Moral History of the Baby https://www.kaydora.com/products/Boom Generation.” Really, it ought to have been called “The Immoral History of the Baby https://www.kaydora.com/reborn-baby-boy-c0384Boom Generation.” At some one-hundred pages, it is a long chapter, but nowhere near as long as it seems while reading it. In some ways, it is an extraordinary performance. “Every few decades,” he tells us, “a pure flame of political rebellion shoots up somewhere and with amazing speed spreads in all directions, until half the countries on earth have been scorched.” It happened in 1776; it happened in 1789; it happened in 1848; it happened in 1917; and, according to Mr. Berman, it happened again in 1968: the student rebellions of 1968, he says, were “one more instance of the same mysterious phenomenon, except on a bigger geographical scale than before.” What is really mysterious is how someone with a college education could actually believe that the triumph of adolescent narcissism in 1968 has any important parallels with the American Revolution (to take just that one instance). Or perhaps this is the sort of thing that, these days, only someone with a college education could believe? In any event, Mr. Berman’s important contribution to discussion of the infantilism of 1968 is to suggest that a “common theme” everywhere was . . . “the split between the young and the old.” It’s sad, really, but there it is: “The young people were eager for risk,” Mr. Berman tells us, face apparently straight, “the elders, not. Ultra-radicalism versus left-wing caution was the crucial division.” If pages could blush, A Tale of Two Utopias would be as pink as its author’s sentiments.

Mr. Berman half-heartedly attempts to formulate a similar story in his second essay, “The Gay Awakening.” Relying heavily on Stonewall, Martin Duberman’s early history of the Gay Lib movement, and Bruce Bawer’s A Place at the Table: The Gay Individual in American Society, he outlines the extraordinarily rapid moral enfranchisement of homosexuality in American society. He has some mild criticisms to make of radical groups such as Queer Nation and Act-Up, which he thinks betray the beneficent motives of the original movement. But his libertarian sympathies make him an overwhelmingly enthusiastic supporter of this effort to politicize sexuality: “The gay movement was the most romantic political campaign that ever existed,” he assures us; “It was a movement for the right to love. It was grand.”

At the center of Mr. Berman’s chapter is the question of whether the United States has a legitimate “liberating role” in the world. For him, this is a hard one, if only because he thinks that “the line between liberating the world and enslaving the world is amazingly thin.” Probably, it wouldn’t help to tell Mr. Berman that it looks considerably less thin outside the precincts of left-wing indignation. He has some level-headed pages about the Communist conspiracy to cover up the fact that U.S. Forces liberated the Czech town of Sus’ice. (According to the Soviets, it was the Red Army—cunningly disguised in American uniforms—that performed that service.) But the real burden of this chapter is to argue that rock music is an emancipatory political force and that Havel’s taste for Frank Zappa, the Velvet Underground, and other such icons of rock culture is an important testimony to his stature as a leader. (According to Mr. Berman, Havel once declared that an album by the Velvet Underground “played a significant role” in Czechoslovakia’s history.) He knowingly discusses the merits of Akord Klub, Plastic People of the Universe, and other Czech rock ’n’ roll bands, concluding that in 1976 “rock and roll finally moved to the center of Czechoslovak politics.” At last! Of course, Mr. Berman is hardly alone in identifying the destructive assault on music that goes under the name of rock ’n’ roll as a beneficent American export. But I think he must be among the first to suggest, as he does here, that the question of whether the United States has a liberating role to play in the world can be answered by pointing to the likes of Frank Zappa.

Mr. Berman spends approximately one-hundred pages mulling over this profound thought, using works by André Glucksmann (a former Maoist who advocates the history-is-chaos theory) and Francis Fukuyama (the famous neo-Hegelian who sees a pleasing shape to the course of history). He treats readers to a great deal of pointless biographical detail about both authors, and he then attempts a summary of their relevant works, Glucksmann’s book The 11th Commandment and Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. Two brief comments: I am no fan of Fukuyama’s Hegelian fantasia. But to say, as Mr. Berman does, that his idea of progress charts “the same direction in world events that Whitman has invoked in his poetry and prose” is woefully to misunderstand both Whitman and Fukuyama. And what, finally, does Mr. Berman make of all this? He expresses a slight preference for the lively chaos espoused by André Glucksmann, but concludes thus: “The messages from these two authors . . . are at odds with one another, but since I am a critic and not a philosopher, I see no reason not to say that both messages seem true enough.” No one, I think, will accuse Mr. Berman of being a philosopher. But even a critic might be expected to stop short of embracing blatant contradiction—unless, of course, he was a “Whitmanian” critic, in which case I suppose that contradiction need be no bar to affirmation.

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By t yhtyh
Added Oct 26

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