(A version of this article was published first in Blogcritics, Politics section)
Consider the following account of the emergence of the New Left: If the Vietnam experience was the trigger, the liberal guilt was the psychological mechanism, and JFK's youthful and charismatic persona served as an example – the image. What's missing from this account is the one quality which made it unlike any movement before or since. I'm referring to its idealism.
Indeed, because of its idealism, no other movement in the history of the world – no freedom or liberation movement, no single-issue movement, engineered as it may have been by the proponents of universal suffrage or the abolitionists, no peasant rebellion or religious revolt, not even the storming of the Bastille – compares to the little "hippie revolution," the Haight-Ashbury, the free speech and counter-culture movement.
What is the trademark of idealism, you may ask. Well, it embraces all sins – past, present, and future. Nothing is overlooked. It's akin to a God's eye judging us all, the whole of humanity in fact, with an uncompromising and relentless standard. And the New Left, because of its idealism, has adopted that standard whereby everyone is held accountable and everything is subject to scrutiny. To think otherwise is to deny your creed. Such are the wages of idealism.
One can't say enough about the extent to which idealism – with its focus on the concept of justice, the highest of all virtues – defined the New Left and shaped American politics since. For example,
The idealistic Left, with its eye on universal justice, views the Right as parochial and ethnocentric, standing in the way of progress by insisting on the most vulgar in selfishness; the Right, on the other hand, sees the Left as naïve and unpatriotic.
The Left, having the entire world under its watchful eye, insists on America's leadership to spread prosperity, freedom and justice to all parts of the globe; the Right views all such policies as detrimental to America's security and national interest.
The Left is adamant about restoring equality among competing individuals and leveling the playing field, both at home and abroad; the Right insists that all such efforts smack of socialism and it falls on the doctrine of personal responsibility, buttressed by social Darwinism and the survival of the fittest thesis, namely, the idea that individuals get what they deserve.
The Left looks to international law and justice as being a more truthful expression of the new morality and heightened consciousness; the Right dismisses all such efforts as being un-American and striking at the very heart of our Constitution.
The Left sees the Constitution and the attendant Bill of Rights as an open-ended document, nothing more than a blueprint, more binding in spirit than the letter; the Right adheres to the principle of strict-interpretation and tends to view all emendations (whether by way of new laws or amendments) with suspicion, as specious constructs which only erode the authority of a timeless document and undermine the original intent of the founders.
The Left is an ardent proponent of human rights: civil rights, the right of free speech, the right of choice as regards abortion and equal treatment at home and in the workplace, the right of freedom from gender or ethnic discrimination, the right to a level playing field; the Right tends to view some of those rights as dubious entitlements and therefore contrary to the spirit of freedom and free enterprise, as countermanding in fact the very principles which made this country great.
But herein lies the rub. The forces which account for the emergence of the New Left – fired by idealism and propelled by the incessant (obsession is the right word) with universal justice – are the very same forces which brought about the near-phenomenal explosion of popular consciousness (see "Quantum of Solace, Part I"), an explosion on a scale never encountered before. One could say in fact that both phenomena, equally unique and unprecedented in the history of humankind, are not only coincidental, but two sides of the same coin.
To put it more succinctly, perhaps, if the New Left is the medium, then the new and expanded consciousness is the message.
Interestingly, selfsame results obtain from examining the operational definition of the New Left in the introduction to "The Hidden Dimensions" series:
The [New] Left . . . is public opinion mobilized around some polarizing moral issue or issues, and which has attained sufficient critical mass to affect major political decisions in matters of public policy and in any area even remotely connected to the issue at hand.
Little did I know at the time of the writing that when I offered this provisional definition, I would be describing "the new consciousness" as well. And yet, come to think of it, all the elements I attributed to the latter in "Quantum of Solace" are present in the definition of the New Left: public opinion, critical mass, and succinctly moral outlook. It's arguable, in fact, that "public opinion" and its impact in determining public policy (with the possible exception of the brief interlude of the revolutionary France and the formation of the Fourth Estate, prompted as both may have been by the Age of Enlightenment and the writings of the philosophes) are, relatively speaking, modern, 20th century phenomena, made possible by the unprecedented explosion in the area of mass communication and the media. Which would make "public opinion" co-equivalent with "the new consciousness," or at least with the predominant expression thereof. So if the New Left is the organ, the new and enhanced morality is its most natural voice.
What is it about idealism, then, which makes it such a potent and uncompromising force? How does it differ from other, equally worthy motives which ignited the revolutions and revolts in times prior: freedom and liberation movements, slave uprisings and prison breaks, workers' strikes, boycotts and whatnot, and all manner of struggles against specific injustices, such as the right to vote or against the discrimination in the workplace, or the more general ones, such as civil rights? The answer, I suggest, resides in the origins of the movement, in its composition, the rank and file.
Say what you will, but the New Left was the direct result of the middle or upper class upbringing, the spoiled brats, mostly white, who had nothing better to do than to attend liberal arts colleges and waste their time on drugs, free love and what have you, the direct result of the unprecedented prosperity which, once upon a time, was the trademark of the American experience. Not for all, I hasten to add, but for the many. And so, a movement was born.
Vietnam was the first bone of contention, but it was only the beginning. The movement had soon spread to include all points of (moral) disagreement: the military-industrial complex, the Establishment, civil rights, feminism, gay rights, the rights of the physically impaired, the environment, and on and on. Every single advance in the area of human rights in the second half of the 20th century can be traced, if not directly than at least indirectly, to the New Left's involvement. And it doesn't matter now whether the New Left embraced the new causes or whether it simply grew in rank and file as the fight spread to include the hotly-debated issues. The net effect was, the little ol' hippie revolution of the sixties energized everything it touched unlike any other movement before or since; it had infused it with its particular brand of energy, enthusiasm and passion; and in a manner of speaking, it spearheaded every single advance in the area of human rights and every fight against injustice, large or small, and in so doing, it affected the outcome. Which is just another way of saying that the rise of the New Left coincides or is synonymous with the explosion of universal, mass consciousness. The rest is history.
What is, of course, the most salient if not the defining characteristic of idealism, its force majeure, is it's rootedness in, and commitment to, causes outside of oneself. Indeed, I take it as axiomatic that such is the stuff from which all true believers are made of – by far a more potent force and one to be reckoned with than any other concern which is merely self-serving rather than other-directed and which aims at redressing whatever personal grievances or injustices. I'm going here by the simple assumption that it's always easier and more convincing to stand up for somebody else rather than for yourself.
That's the power of the idea, the moral idea, I should preface; and it's been said many times before ("the pen is mightier than the sword" being one example). It's from thence that the force of idealism derives.
Can the movement sustain itself in light of the present crisis? Aren't we in danger of backsliding, which would only validate a cyclical view of history? Can anything be done to keep the fires burning?
I'll turn to these and related considerations in the conclusion.