Liberal Disdain

From the June/July 2014 Print Edition

There once was an influential group of American intellectuals and activists who held what many nowadays would consider strange and even reprehensible ideas. They were elitists, who believed that the republic should be ruled by geniuses and great-souled men. They were mistrustful of democracy, and some of them didn’t even believe that all Americans should be allowed to vote. They were cosmopolitans, influenced by the beliefs of foreign thinkers. They were deeply critical of many aspects of the United States: the irrational religious enthusiasms and dangerous sectarian passions of its people, the chaotic nature of its governance, and the materialism of its middle and lower classes, with their vulgar interests in making money and advancing themselves.These men were, in fact, the Founding Fathers of the country. But the description would also fit many prominent liberal thinkers of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. Times change, and some things that past generations took for granted appear bizarre to us now, just as many of our beliefs probably will seem strange to future generations. But in his new book, The Revolt Against the Masses, Fred Siegel insists that the essence of liberalism has always been snobbery. Liberalism’s eternal enemy, in his view, is the American middle class and its traditional views of capitalism and mass democracy. President Barack Obama’s “top-and-bottom coalition,” pitting the rich and poor against the middling sorts, is no new innovation but has defined liberalism since its origins.Siegel states at the outset that he does not intend to offer “a comprehensive history of American liberalism.” Rather, he aims to rewrite that history by showing how the snobbery of liberalism has developed since its origins among the writers and thinkers who grew disillusioned with American society in the wake of World War I. Continue Reading »

Wise Helmsman

From the January 2014 Print Edition

Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative
by michael novak
image, 336 pages, $24
Time seems to have mellowed Michael Novak, the well-known Catholic writer, theologian, and philosopher. In previous decades, he wrote that the neoconservatives who, like himself, had moved from the political left to right over the course of the 1960s and 1970s were motivated by “a powerful intellectual conviction that the left was wrong about virtually every big issue of our time: the Soviet Union, the North Vietnamese regime, economics, welfare, race, and moral questions such as abortion, amnesty, acid, and the sexual revolution.” 

Novak’s new memoir, published as the author celebrated his ­eightieth birthday this past September, contains no such searing indictments. It settles no scores, revisits only some of the old battles, and has kind words even for the Democrats’ most ­left-wing presidential nominee, George McGovern (“an extraordinarily decent man… . How could you not love the guy?”). It contains some wonderful scenes from ­Novak’s life, including an affectionate ­description of his encounter in graduate school with the French playwright and philosopher Gabriel Marcel, and a useful reflection on the realism of his intellectual role model, Reinhold Niebuhr.

He does not suffer from false modesty—he points out that his writing influenced both the founding manifesto of Students for a Democratic Society and Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. But the book’s restrictive focus means that he says little about other events or even long periods in his life: his dozen years in the seminaries of the Congregation of Holy Cross, or his appointments at places like Syracuse University and the Rockefeller ­Foundation, or his reception of one of the world’s most prestigious honors, the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. Continue Reading »