Saturday, October 27, 2012

A Scarcity of "New Thinking"

Looking back on intellectual history the middle of the last century - the 1950s especially, but to differing degrees the years immediately preceding and following it - seems to have been an exceptionally fertile time for popular writing on sociology and economics and the history related to them.

Today's more striking public intellectuals are not without ideas of their own, but the writers of the '50s remain an essential point of reference and overall influence, and the work of the newer authors, at its most substantial, tends to carry forward the earlier arguments and critiques. Andrew Bacevich is perfectly clear on the matter of his debt to William Appleman Williams. Morris Berman, discussing his latest, points out that "it is actually part of a lineage, the path initially staked out by Richard Hofstadter, C. Vann Woodward and Louis Hartz" in the late 1940s and 1950s. At the close of The Wrecking Crew it is to Richard Hofstadter that Thomas Frank looks back. Indeed, Chris Hedges, in Death of the Liberal Class, compares our current crop of public intellectuals - unfavorably - with these predecessors of a half century ago.

Why was this the case? Perhaps it was a reflection of the unique opportunities available to that generation of authors. (It is hard to picture a John Kenneth Galbraith or a William H. Whyte working at Fortune Magazine today, or to think of any liberal intellectual - or any intellectual for that matter - who had the kind of long, varied experience of government work Galbraith did during World War II and the Cold War.) It seems likely, too, that this was partly a matter of the novelty of the problems of the post-war years, which have since become so familiar, and remain deeply entangled with our newer problems, so much so that commenting on them it is harder to appear fresh or original. (Reading Barbara Ehrenreich's Bait and Switch, for instance, one sees a world deeply changed since the time of Whyte's The Organization Man - and yet in other ways, very much the same, not least in the use and abuse of personality tests.) Another reason may have been the assumption of a more literate general audience. (Much as Galbraith has been justly praised for his urbane prose style, major publisher's today might take issue with its suitability to a work of pop economics aimed at today's market.) But certainly part of it was the existence of a political climate which permitted the airing of a range of ideas that was wider in some respects, and a stronger hope that the expression of those ideas could actually mean something out in the real world. (The irony that they lived in the era of the House Un-American Activities Committee should not be lost on us.)

The last is only too apparent in the tone of the writings, imbued with a sense that there is little that will be done about today's problems, regardless of what they say (the titles of books like those by Hedges and Berman saying it all). This apathy is hardly going unnoticed. When the hand on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock moved one minute forward this month, Kennette Benedict, the magazine's executive director, cited the lack of "new thinking" as a factor.

As far as I can tell, no one has expressed real surprise at that statement.

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