Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Schlesinger on violence

For reasons having to do with dissertation research rather than contemporary politics, a friend of mine forwarded to me the text of a commencement speech given by Aurthur M. Schlesinger, jr. It was delivered in 1968, on the day Robert Kennedy was shot. The text I have was published in Harper’s magazine (August, 1968, pp. 19-24) under the title, "America 1968: The Politics of Violence," and is available in their (subscription only) archive. The bulk of the speech is devoted to criticizing those on the New Left—in particular Herbert Marcuse—who, Schlesinger says, have contributed to the creation of an environment in which violence, for instance assassination, seems like a good choice. Schlesinger is especially horrified by Marcuse’s rejection of free speech and ‘tolerance.’ For Schlesinger, it is the role of the “intellectual community” to be the custodians of reasoned debate, and the intellectuals of the New Left are going down a disastrous path in rejecting this traditionally leftist role. Here are some extracts, not selected to be representative.

The world today is asking a terrible question—a question which every citizen of this Republic should be putting to himself: what sort of people are we, we Americans?

And the answer which much of the world is bound to return is that we are today the most frightening people on this planet.


We cannot blame our epidemic of murder abroad on the wickedness of those who will not conform to our views of how they should behave and how they should live. For the zeal with which we have pursued an irrational war suggests the internal impulses of hatred and violence demanding outlet and shaping our foreign policy to their ends.

We must recognize that the evil is in us, that it springs from some dark, intolerable tension in our history and our institutions. It is almost as if a primal curse had been fixed on our nation, perhaps when we first began the practice of killing and enslaving those whom we deemed our inferiors because their skin was another color. We are a violent people with a violent history, and the instinct for violence has seeped into the bloodstream of our national life.

We are also, at our best, a generous and idealistic people. Our great leaders—Lincoln most of all—have perceived both the destructive instinct and the moral necessity of transcending destruction if we are going to have any sort of rational and decent society. They have realized how fragile the membranes of our civilization are, stretched so thin over a nation so disparate in its composition, so tense in its interior relationships, so cunningly enmeshed in underground fears and antagonisms, so entrapped by history in the ethos of violence.


We can no longer regard harder and violence as accidents and aberrations, as nightmares which will pass away when we awake. We must see them as organic in our national past; we must confront them; we must uncover the roots of hatred and violence and, through self-knowledge, move toward self-control.


Let me make it clear that I am not talking about the student uprisings of recent weeks. I have no question that on balance the world stands to gain from student protest.


Surely there is little more pathetic than the view that violence in American society will benefit the left. A limited amount of violence may stimulate the process of democratic change; but, if the left, through the cult of the deed, helps create an atmosphere which destroys the process of democracy itself, the winners will be those who use violence best, and they will be on the right.

Harper’s, in their October issue, published two letters objecting to so much as the publication of this speech, and one short one praising it. Harper’s stands accused by Harley McAdams of having “assisted this most pompous of our ‘intellectuals’ in another one of his fatuous diatribes thinly disguised as an analysis of violence.” John Van Laer, on the other hand, with an appointment in the Psychology department at Hunter College, says, “if there is any national sickness today, its most dramatic symptom is the universal outcry that unthinkingly fastens the blame for every hideous act of some demented Arab irredentist, Bulgarian refugee, Czech defector, or Cuban extremist on American society and institutions.”

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