book cover imageCultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism: From Criticism to Cultural Studies
by James Seaton.
University of Michigan Press, 1996.
287 pp., $42.50 cloth.

This wonderful book defends a tradition of American cultural self-criticism that includes Irving Babbitt, H. L. Mencken, Dwight McDonald, the Trillings, Edmund Wilson, and Ralph Ellison from famous and formidable contemporary opponents. Seaton takes on Richard Rorty’s pragmatism, the cultural radicalism of Leslie Fielder and Susan Sontag, the trendy academic cultural studies movement of Frederic Jameson, Edward Said, and Stanley Fish, and the cultural conservatism of E. D. Hirsch and Allan Bloom.

The critics with which Seaton sides “are more likely than others to sustain their moral balance in print, because they draw authority from the cultural heritage rather than from the self alone.” Their writing reflects the connections among reason, moderation, and tradition, and, by definition, the genuinely humanistic view that there is a standard of human judgment above will and desire alone. With such a standard, they “demonstrated in practice the independence of mind that almost all intellectuals approve in theory.” But their independence was limited by their devotion to the reasonable articulation of a common culture which they share with their fellow citizens. They wrote in a non-specialized, non-esoteric vocabulary that allowed a wide audience to understand and evaluate their arguments.

This book, above all, is a criticism of the pretensions of American romantic idealism, the desire to liberate the self from all constraints for its natural innocence. Because such liberation is really impossible, all that disappears is what is required for genuine self-scrutiny and self-restraint. The pursuit of the innocent self produces the imperial self and the deranged self.

Rorty, Seaton notes, manages both to reject moral and religious absolutes and still to claim moral superiority through his aversion to cruelty. Seaton goes on hilariously and provocatively to compare Rorty to Blanche DuBois of A Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche had been guilty of outrageous, self-destructive moral lapses, but never of what she calls “the one unforgivable thing,” deliberate cruelty. So she proclaims herself, in the decisive sense, truly innocent. Rorty, despite his pride in his irony, does not see how easily he was seduced by the self-indulgent view that the mere “expression of liberal opinions guarantees personal innocence in a cruel world.”

This self-indulgence is the reason that Rorty’s genuine devotion to liberal opinion is neither penetrating nor discriminating. He is given to reaching silly, irresponsible conclusions such as “the main social effect of the cultural Left is the discouraging of prejudice against homosexuals and racial minorities.” Seaton observes that if people really have to choose, as the cultural Left says, between a wholesale condemnation of Western culture and being bigots, they “might decide that bigotry seems rather reasonable.” But pedestrian, old-fashioned liberals, who speak specifically of rights and tolerance and not loosely about diversity and multiculturalism, actually offer a more rigorous and convincing argument against discrimination than today’s self-proclaimed radicals.

In criticising Bloom, Seaton notices that “Bloom’s wholehearted commitment to his vision of the philosophical life as the life most worth living . . . allows him to articulate insights that any less grandiose vision would not have allowed.” But he adds that Bloom’s analysis is not free from trendy, antiliberal romanticism. Bloom’s criticism of “openness” calls to mind the New Left philosopher Herbert Marcuse’s controversial indictment of “repressive tolerance.” Bloom’s analysis of the flattening of soul caused by sexual liberation was echoed in advance by Marcuse’s concepts of “repressive desublimation” and “one-dimensional man.” But Seaton admits that these antiliberal insights become more compelling in Bloom’s book, where they are separated from Marcuse’s abstract and discredited “quasi-Marxist” theorizing.

Bloom’s understanding of philosophy also seems reminiscent of romantic idealism. He locates it not in reflection so much as in a personal experience of liberation, and he says that the experience of pleasurable philosophical insight is essentially incommunicable to those who have not had it. Bloom does not accept the rationalist premise concerning “the ability of discourse to formulate truths common to all.” So he shows “the limitations of authenticity as a basis for repossession of the cultural past.”

Seaton, quite properly, is most severe in his criticism of the leaders of the cultural studies movement. He uses Marcuse, and implicitly Bloom, to criticize Jameson’s hopelessly vague Marxism. Jameson identifies liberation and utopia with impulse and desire, and ideology with rationalization and sublimation. But genuine cultural criticism and all human idealism, Marcuse and Bloom show, depends upon sublimation, upon having a certain order in one’s life and being able to reason and to delay gratification with an imaginative vision of the future in mind. Jameson’s The Political Unconscious has the same pernicious effect as television; both stupefy human beings by pandering to the utopian desire for immediate, thoughtless gratification. His theorizing is a new form of opium for the intellectuals.

The post-structuralist theory of Edward Said has no principled way for distinguishing between the desire to understand and the drive to control. Public debate becomes nothing but opposing forms of fraudulent, self-righteous moralism. Like Jameson’s, Said’s vision of the future, his standard of criticism, is only a vague aspiration toward liberation and a “non-coercive culture,” and, like Rorty and Blanche DuBois, he presents his good intentions as placing him above the moral failings shared by mere mortals.

Perhaps most pernicious and empty is Stanley Fish’s law as literature theorizing. With friends like Fish, Seaton explains, one wishes for enemies. He defends affirmative action as the culmination of the civil rights movement by depriving both of their moral content. He cleverly reinterprets Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. King really meant, Fish contends, that there is a connection between the color of skin and the content of character, deconstructing the individualistic, colorblind core of the speech’s liberal morality in the process. Fish radicalizes Rorty’s view that anything can be described in and out of existence, and so we are not necessarily rational or tradition-dependent beings.

Irving Babbitt, Seaton shows, provides the necessary corrective for such naïveté. He opposed Harvard President Eliot’s view of education as “training for service and training for power.” The will to power inevitably overwhelms the will to service. Idealistic intentions, unconstrained by reason, religion, and humanistic traditions, become imperialistic. There is nothing more dangerous than the denial of one’s own will to power, or the romantic belief in one’s own innocence. So Babbitt and Mencken “emphasized the virtues of peaceful, daily life—moderation, civility, good manners—as distinct from the virtues associated with those attempting to save the world by force or otherwise, such as unbending principle, total commitment, and absolute sincerity.” They were “cultural conservatives” and so conservators of what is required for rational, liberal humanism.

I have only given a few examples of the astuteness of Seaton’s criticism, skipping over many gems along the way. I only perceive one limit to his critical powers, his intellectual’s prejudice against political conservatism. He says that what separates a moderate, anticommunist liberal such as himself from a neoconservative is that the latter’s thought is distorted excessively to self-interest. He seems too ready to regard other political conservatives as fanatics of the Right, tainted by religious enthusiasm, homophobia, McCarthyism, sexism, perhaps racism, and so forth. He does not perceive that there might be a crisis in the American understanding of rights, or that liberals may have become too exclusively devoted to the language of rights. Still, Seaton is a most reasonable, sensible, courageous, instructive, and witty liberal, and we should count him among our most helpful friends.  

Peter Augustine Lawler is Professor of Political Science at Berry College, Georgia. He is author of The Restless Mind: Alexis de Tocqueville on the Origin and Perpetuation of Human Liberty and Postmodernism Rightly Understood.