Arthur Schlesinger

Arthur Schlesinger, a fine embodiment of modern liberal stasis, died last week. Schlesinger, along with JK Galbraith, represented that satisfied liberalism that died an unnoticed death sometime in the late 60’s or early 70’s. Figures like Schlesinger and Galbraith—and the brand of liberalism they represented—became instantly irrelevant during that time, although they personally never caught on. Schlesinger was still harping about the illusory Camelot moment 30 years later, like the crazy uncle who couldn’t get past his first love affair. Liberals like Schlesinger and Galbraith were almost defined by their lack of insight and self-awareness.

Fr Neuhaus blogs on Schlesinger, perhaps more kindly than one would expect:

“The obituaries of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. have been surprising straightforward in noting the ways in which he was not a very good historian. His earlier work on, for instance, the age of Jackson (meaning Andrew) was eclipsed by his becoming the “house intellectual” of the John F. Kennedy administration. Yet it was all of a piece. In the 1960s, there was incessant debate on the left about whether it was possible to work for radical change within “the system.” At least for a time, when the system was in sync with where he thought history ought to be going, Arthur Schlesinger was determined to demonstrate a positive answer to that question.

When in the 1970s I was with the Council on Religion and International Affairs (now called the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs), over on East 64th Street, Schlesinger was a regular speaker and participant in various discussions. He was usually bright, witty, and unflusterable in his confidence that liberalism and intelligence were synonymous—especially the liberalism represented by the Camelot moment in which he had played a part, if mainly as an observer.

He exemplified the insouciance of Lionel Trilling, who dismissed conservatism as irritable gestures trying to pass themselves off as ideas. More than that, for Schlesinger conservatism was indelibly tainted by racism, xenophobia, and, most damning of all, anticommunism. It is hard for many to remember today how deeply entrenched was the dogma of anti-anticommunism in the liberalism of those days.

I notice that the New York Times several times says he was an “anti-Communist.” That is true within the context of those days. He rejected the ideology of communism and was among those who founded Americans for Democratic Action in order to distance liberalism from the “Old Left” of the 1930s, which was still very much alive decades later. But he was emphatically anti those anticommunists who were viewed as opposing communists more than was absolutely necessary. To his credit, in the 1990s, in The Disuniting of America, he challenged “Afrocentrism” and other multicultural fashions in the academy.

The most striking thing about Arthur Schlesinger, apart from his professorial manner and impish humor, was what seemed to be a lack of intellectual curiosity. The course of a thoroughly secularized liberalism was the trajectory of historical progress, and deviations from it were to be viewed with amused contempt and occasional spurts of anger. Trilling rose above his dismissive aphorism. I’m not sure that Schlesinger ever did. The self-confidence, often indistinguishable from smugness, of the liberal intellectual consensus of the 1940s and 1950s was unshakeable. It all came together with JFK, the star to which Schlesinger hitched his wagon. And he rather poignantly tried to bring it together again in his support of the presidential aspirations of Robert and Edward Kennedy.

As James Piereson wrote in an insightful essay in Commentary a while back, it was with the assassination of JFK that the left began to embrace a darker view of American history. But Arthur Schlesinger kept the faith. As did John Kenneth Galbraith, who died last year at age ninety-seven. I suppose there are not many left from that time of an older liberalism that casually dismissed deviations from its consensus as irritable gestures pretending to be ideas.”