Deja Vu All Over Again?

In my podcast with Fred Siegel a few weeks back about the rioting and deterioration of New York and other American cities, Fred remarked that the real cause of our current trouble is that “the sixties never ended.” And a lot of people have been saying that 2020 reminds them of 1968—the year when everything went wrong and the country seemed to be on the brink of coming apart.

It may be that history does run in cycles—that it doesn’t repeat, but rhymes. And so I dusted off the collected letters and documents from Daniel Patrick Moynihan that was published about a decade ago, in particular to remind myself of what Moynihan wrote in his private memos to President Nixon and others in 1969 and 1970, when the last counter-cultural movement was running at full tide. (My review of the book can be found here.)

Here are a few stray comments from Moynihan’s many memos to Nixon, starting in 1969, that can be applied without change to the present moment:

“To a degree that no one could have anticipated even three or four years ago, the educated elite of the American middle class have come to detest their society, and their detestation is rapidly diffusing to youth in general. The effects of this profound movement of opinion will be with us for generations. . .

 “What we are facing is the onset of nihilism in the United States…. The three most important points are that nihilists are almost entirely drawn from the educated, even upper classes. They are extremely idealistic, seeing themselves as agents of the purest charity. They are violent in the most extreme ways. . . Nihilist movements typically have led to political regimes of the most oppressive and reactionary qualities. . .

“I know there is an authoritarian Left in this country, and I fear it.

“It would be difficult to overestimate the degree to which young well-educated blacks detest white America.

“In the best universities the best men are increasingly appalled by the authoritarian tendencies of the left. The inadequacies of traditional liberalism are equally unmistakable, while, not least important, the credulity, even the vulgarity of the supposed intellectual and social elite of the country has led increasing numbers of man and women of no especial political persuasion to realize that something is wrong somewhere.

“The elite intelligentsia of the country are turning against the country—in science, in politics, in the fundaments of patriotism. How can we not pay for this?

“Are we then witnessing the ultimate, destructive working out of the telos of liberal thought?

Short answer to this last question: Yes.

It may not be a pure coincidence that in many respects, Moynihan could be said to have been the first liberal “canceled” by the left in the 1960s (over his report on the black family), thus providing the template for today’s mass cancellations.