Teach the conflicts

When I reviewed Gerald Graff's book on "teaching the conflicts," I had as much space as I needed (I was writing for Review and its editor Jay Hoge gave me no limit). In part because Graff's idea had already received a great deal of attention, I decided to set his argument in the context of the Cold War-era political correctness debates. It was an odd gesture, because nowhere in the book does Graff refer to anticommunism or to pedagogy in the 1950s.

Here are the first two paragraphs of my piece:

Saul Bellow was surely right when in May of 1994 he noted for a New Yorker writer that the culture wars of the nineties have their rhetorical and logical origins in the fifties — in the "super-charged battles between anti-Communists and anti-anti-Communists." I take this cue (though little else, I'm afraid) from Mr. Bellow. He is right to imply that while so much has been said and written about political correctness in the eighties and nineties, little has been done to put the debates in the context of anticommunism. Though Bellow believes anti-anticommunists were largely influenced by Stalinism — here's where, unsurprisingly, he parts with the left — he does concede that what little anti-anticommunist resistance there was in the 1950s arose because some liberals didn't enjoy "being forced to line up" in the rush to consensus. To Bellow those who in the late forties and fifties fashioned liberal anticommunism (those who did "line up" — Bellow scornfully says many indulged in "opinion- consumerism") had earlier been the not-altogether happy participants in the Popular Front, New Deal Democrats among them. More interesting is Bellow's notion that those who formed anti- anticommunism had been either outright communists earlier, or liberals whose liberalism became "liberal fanaticism" when in the 1950s they refused to participate in McCarthyism. These anti- anticommunists, Bellow suggests, are the principal forerunners of advocates of "political correctness" forty years later. Bellow sees in contemporary liberalism a radicalism of people stuck on slogans, labels and rigidified positions ("mindless ... medallion-wearing ... placard-bearing" folks), and evidently he deems this group more properly the inheritors of anti-anticommunist Stalinism than of anticommunist liberalism — as if the latter ideology did not have an ideology, had no slogans, bore no placards. This PC genealogy is the key, I think, to discerning the positions taken in the newest outbreak of culture wars. PC bashers inherit from the fifties the anticommunists' assumption that the most powerful anti-anticommunists are Stalinists-become-"liberal fanatics," while anti-PC bashers inherit from the fifties the anti-anticommunists' assumption that the most powerful anticommunists are liberals become more truly themselves. At issue, primarily, is which group gets to claim as its rightful heritage from the cold-war era the notion that intellectual and social culture benefit from radical dissensus, disagreement, and difference. Yet in the fifties almost every anticommunist at one point or other argued *against* dissensus for the sake of the necessarily greater disagreement with Soviet (or "world") communism (e.g. limits on the right of American communists to teach in the universities, for the sake of national security), while, even if only for strategic reasons, the anti-anticommunists were the ones incessantly arguing for the right (indeed the usefulness) of radical dissent, including that of communists.

Although Gerald Graff, as he wrote Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education, was surely aware of a cold-war context for his contention that, for instance, intellectual extreme opposites "need" each other to make their positions meaningful, it was never his purpose to make his argument depend on such awareness. Yet Beyond the Culture Wars would benefit from this focus, and since, moreover, so much has been written about Graff's book since its publication in 1992 in relation to the political correctness, canon revision and multiculturalism controversies, I intend here to concentrate on restoring what I take to be the crucial though perhaps necessarily unspoken cold-war background to Graff's proposal. The 1950s' relevance to what Graff nicely calls "teaching the conflicts" reveals both the value of Graff's insights about the cultural resistance to intellectual many-sidedness and the limitations of a liberal pedagogical idealism that is trying too hard to avoid the old communist-anticommunist contest. Despite what I take to be implicitly his acuity about the effects of cold-war consensus on the universities, and of red-baiting on intellectual culture at large, his promotion of an argument-counterargument structure to literary education too often neglects the fact that equal-time liberalism has a cultural precondition rendering free and open colloquy not so easily made free and open. Graff would say (rightly, I think) that the precondition must itself be taught, but the resulting meta-pedagogical involution, however boldly self-conscious, is not without its own politics.

Here is the text of the whole review.