Liberalism, the Me Decade, and Now
May 17, 2021 Updated: May 17, 2021
Who could have imagined that liberalism would be so fragile, so easily and righteously abandoned?
I don’t mean the collapse of that cornerstone of American liberalism, the First Amendment, though the hounding of religion out of the public square, the rising mistrust of free speech, the decay of the press into a partisan club, and free association repeatedly challenged in the courts are trends certainly sufficient to mark a nation in (probably) inevitable decline.
I mean, instead, the end of liberalism in social life, that free-wheeling attitude of Live-and-Let-Live and Do-Your-Own-Thing and Whatever-Floats-Your-Boat that was the main upshot of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. We think of the ’60s and images of righteous fury come to mind, the Black Panthers and campus takeovers and assassinations, but by the mid-70s the militance had largely dissipated as a social force. The Vietnam War was over and there was no more draft. The leftist elements in the Democratic Party, too, had been chastened by the disaster of the McGovern campaign. Yes, some radical groups lingered—the Patty Hearst kidnapping in 1974 was only one of many violent actions in the decade—but lots of hard cases had gotten older and moved on (several slipping into the academy and eventually earning tenure, or they were on the run or in prison, or were dead!).
In the ’70s the air felt different, less political, and more libertine. The ideologies faded but the cultural mores survived. It was the Me Decade. The refrain in Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s tale of Kent State, “Four dead in Ohio,” gave way to Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You, Baby.” Political entertainment such as “All in the Family” were eclipsed by “Charlie’s Angels.”
In May 1972, 2,000 students rallied at UCLA against the War, but by the time I arrived as a freshman in Fall 1977, there wasn’t a whisper of protest sentiment in the dorms or outside the administration buildings. The most populous event I can recall around that time was a showing of “Deep Throat” one night in the Ackerman Union ballroom, which drew 5,000 kids (it was too crowded, I couldn’t get in). The tables set up along Bruin Walk that had a political point of some kind drew hardly any notice. We were drinking and playing basketball, no rap sessions or organizing. Diversity was everywhere, but not at all political. My brother and I had roommates and buddies who were Chinese, Mexican, Guatemalan, Iranian, Korean, and Filipino, and none of us considered race a fraught issue. We just wanted to have fun together.
We were liberal, we all were liberal—in behavior, that is. Liberalism meant that you left people alone to do what they wanted to do as long as they didn’t come down on anyone else. What happened behind closed doors was nobody’s business. What went through people’s own heads was off-limits until they acted on it and affected others. Don’t be judgmental, and keep your hang-ups to yourself. People are people, leave them alone, no stereotyping, no prejudice (that is, no pre-judging by group characteristics)—those were the general rules. A couple guys we knew were gay, and nobody cared. An African American girl down the hall was desired by all the guys in the dorm because she was smiling and shapely. Her blackness had little to do with it; or rather, it didn’t have any more influence on how we judged her than did her eyes and lips and body and voice. To give her—or anyone’s—identity too much distinct attention would be bad form.
If you asked us why we thought this way, perhaps a few might answer that this was what Civil Rights was all about. Most of us, though, didn’t think about it so rationally. It was just an attitude, ordinary and common, like table manners. This was the right way, the best way to be—who could object? We saw it echoed in one way or another in movies, TV shows, music, and public deportment. When in the 1983 film “Terms of Endearment” we heard John Lithgow tell Debra Winger about his uptight wife who refuses to have sex in any other position but missionary, we were ready to laugh her right off the stage. The next year, we felt the same way about Lithgow himself when he portrayed the repressive preacher out to ban dancing and rock ‘n roll in his small town. Give us “Animal House” instead. There was no debate, no discussion, only a happy uniformity about freedom.
And let me add another point, a very important one: If someone did object, he wouldn’t suffer the wrath of the crowd. Dissenters were given their space, and usually ignored. I recall one middle-aged fellow on Bruin Walk now and then who liked to pronounce upon our sins and call us to penitence—we called such men “Bible thumpers.” Our response? To enjoy his banter, to joke with him, or simply pass by without breaking stride or concentration on our way to the library. There were Moonies around as well, Scientologists, too, and lots of other odd groups, but they were merely lesser ingredients of the human mix in 1980. You might think they were far out, but you would never get the urge to punish them.
I thought this was settled. Live and let live … Everyone’s got an opinion … It’s a free country … Those were the rules, and I assumed they would go on forever. Again, we didn’t have to fight for them or argue for them. They were generally accepted, enough to be held unconsciously. The last thing I expected to come in the future would be a society in which a white 15-year-old girl’s use of the n-word (mimicking a rap song, not as an insult) would get amplified by the eavesdropper years later into a campaign to ruin the girl’s prospects. It would have been unimaginable, also, that in order to be a teacher in a majority-black school you would have to be “anti-racist,” which meant giving up the ideal of “colorblindness.” Segregated dormitories? No way.
The Woke Revolution has put the whole outlook to rest. It’s not enough to tolerate trans-individuals; one must affirm them. You can’t go through life eschewing racist impulses; no, you must vigorously oppose them in yourself and in others. You are to sit still while certain authorized persons mark your drawbacks better than can your own conscience. And now that everything is political, now that racism and sexism and homophobia can be unconscious as well as conscious, you have no right to privacy any longer. What you do on your own time may affect your employment. A small campaign contribution can destroy your career, though it be wholly unrelated. Skins are getting thinner, individual freedoms are slipping, the liberal dispensation is over.
I thought my liberalism was stronger than that. Or rather, I didn’t think about it at all; I didn’t think I had to. It was too firm and established and correct to be toppled by illiberal characters. All the more incredible, then, that this achievement of tolerance should fall to such an unappealing crowd as those leading the Woke movement. Indeed, looking at them as individuals, one can hardly believe that the liberal edifice should crumble so quickly. The irate college students, pampered and excitable, who complained about microaggressions; the sputtering DC insiders who demanded that people who worked in the Trump administration be blackballed; the founders of Black Lives Matter—these are not impressive people, and they’re not likable people, either. The college presidents and corporate CEOs who bend to the Wokesters’ demands look no more discerning and principled than PR flunkies trying to fend off bad publicity. Why are such ignoble egos in charge?
Was liberalism so groundless and flimsy that it could succumb to these guys? That’s not how it felt in 1979. (Remember, I mean liberal social attitudes about privacy and pluralism, not liberal politics of Big Government and welfare; Reagan was just around the corner, yes, but on social issues keep in mind that Gov. Reagan approved no-fault divorce in 1969, though he later regretted it.) The rigors and challenges of an open, pluralistic society could be rough, yes, but that was a source of pride for us, not offense. If a peer of ours had risen in the audience once a speaker finished and moaned, “I find your comments offensive,” as if that very fact discredited the speaker’s speech, we would have been embarrassed for the offended one, and a little annoyed, too, at the infantile posture. How in the world did this sort of childishness manage to acquire so much authority? Where did these people learn that it’s okay to ramp up your emotional radar to pick up “aggressions” that are so small they get the prefix micro-?
It’s a situation that can’t work. The Woke brigades worship diversity but a genuinely diverse society rests on a populace made up of individuals of a squarely un-Woke character. A liberal outlook doesn’t look kindly on surveillance. It doesn’t target people because they voted for Donald Trump. It doesn’t censor and boycott and petition and protest with such promiscuous glee.
But it does now. Liberalism isn’t liberalism any longer, and liberals aren’t liberal. They’re fellow travelers of the left, not leftists themselves, perhaps, but sympathetic and obedient to the radicals. The ’70s were in many ways an awful time—gas shortages, inflation, interest rates, wide ties—but they didn’t have much political correctness, nor did they encourage the whiny temperament (as is clear from the heroes Hollywood put forward: Travis Bickle, Patton, Harry Callahan, Popeye Doyle, Paul Kersey, Vito Corleone). They were libertine, to be sure (disco, porn films, coed dorms), which had long-term costs (illegitimacy, AIDS), but they lacked the noxious ideological climate that fostered the Duke Lacrosse fiasco and the Rolling Stone hoax.
We’re now in the midst of that climate. Liberalism gave up, played “matador defense,” as Chick Hearn used to put it when the Lakers let an opponent drive to the basket uncontested. What looked like a solid social ethos, permanent and effective, the American Way, turned out to be but an episode in American history, over and done, replaced by a miserable attitude that will only produce misery.
Mark Bauerlein is an emeritus professor of English at Emory University. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, the TLS, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.