[This is Chapter Seven in Murphey's book Liberalism in Contemporary America.]


Liberalism and American Culture

A vastly important dimension of American liberalism comes from the liberal intellectual culture's having for the most part joined in the Left's century-and-a-half old assault upon the values and culture of the middle class (often referred to as the "bourgeoisie"). This is an assault that continues in many forms in the 1990s [Note: and now in 2002],  though most prominently in the form of a projected multicultural swamping of the mainstream culture.

Before the Civil War, as we have seen, the intellectual culture began quite early to see American life as sick. Henry David Thoreau spoke of "lives of quiet desperation" in which effluvia took the place of serious values. He complained that he could find no one in Concord who could discuss a good English classic with him. "Our reading, our conversation and thinking are all on a very low level, worthy only of pygmies and manikins," he said. "We are a race of tit-men, and soar but little higher in our intellectual flights than the columns of the daily paper."1

A comparable period of social criticism occurred in the early twentieth century. Liberals of Randolph Bourne and Harold Stearns' generation found fault with almost every facet of our national life. In the present chapter we will examine the main contours of that critique.

1. The social critics have often complained of the middle class's traditional commitment to the work ethic and to moral constraints. As Morris Cohen wrote under the pseudonym "Philonous" in 1919, "it is the Puritanic feeling of responsibility which has blighted our art and philosophy and has made us as a people unskilled in the art of enjoying life." Alfred Kuttner wrote in 1914 that "so long as we frown upon leisure as a yielding to the devil and an invitation to our competitor to overreach us, the finer issues of life must remain in abeyance."2

Randolph Bourne objected to the redemptive theme within American novels that sought "the moral transformation" of the characters. Bourne praised Theodore Dreiser and urged all literature to "follow the pattern of life, sincere, wistful and unredeemed." An article in The New Republic in 1930 by another author spoke of "a country stifled by generations of Puritanism," and in the area of sexuality called for a "breaking down of the secrecy and hypocrisy."3

To classical liberalism, the culture's internalizing of moral values and discipline within its individuals is a vitally important part of the social cements that allow a free society to exist. This is precisely something that the Left, including such modern liberals as Cohen and Bourne, has attacked as part of its assault on individualistic liberalism.

Perhaps the most incredible statement of the Left's view has come from Jerry Rubin in his book Growing (Up) at 37. Using the typical Dadaistic shock method that became so popular a weapon with the New Left, he tells of a "psychic therapy" session in which the participants sought release from their "childhood deprivation." He says, "I started shouting at my mother for the specific messages she gave me. 'Thanks, Mommy. You white-skinned no-good sexless asshole cap-toothed cancerous venom of a snake who destroyed me from birth...You taught me to hate myself, to feel guilty, to drive myself crazy,... to hate my body, to hate women... I have your self-righteous right-wrong should-should-not programming... with that stupid JUDGE inside me that I got from you. I don't see people as they are, but as they fit my standards, my self-righteous beliefs... Oh, it is so liberating for me to tell the truth. MOMMY I AM GLAD THAT YOU DIED. IF YOU HAD NOT DIED OF CANCER, I WOULD HAVE HAD TO KILL YOU... You taught me to compete and compare, to fear and outdo. I became a ferocious achievement-oriented, compulsive, obsessive live-in-my-head asshole...Well fuck you, Mommy, fuck you in the ass with a red hot poker." [Rubin's capitalization.] When we compare this passage with those I have quoted from Cohen and Bourne, we see that the conceptual content is the same. Rubin's, though, gives us insight into the nihilistic extreme to which those concepts -- when articulated through the shock tactic of totally disregarding so-called "middle class" standards of expression -- have been carried by the more militant members of the Left.4

2. The attack on the work ethic and on "middle class" moral constraints has gone hand in hand with objections to our culture's emphasis on material success.

John Dewey complained that "a regime of pecuniary profit and loss still commands our allegiance." He urged that "we question the worth of a dominantly money-civilization." John Dos Passos added that there was an "imperial American procession towards more money, more varnish, more ritz, that obsesses all our lives." During the late 1960s, Henry Fairlie compared the counterculture with his own youth, and wrote that "the young today, on the whole, despise business for the same reason that the young of my own day despised it: that it seems to be concerned only with making money by processes which seem to be intellectually and emotionally unsatisfying."5

3. A commercial, middle class society involves a peaceable day-to-day existence that has long struck many thinkers as intolerably mundane. Largely oblivious to the human drama that that life encompasses, these authors have felt a longing spiritually for "something bigger, more absorbing than individual lives."

Such a perspective was felt deeply by the adherents of the Romantic movement in the early 19th century. Thomas Carlyle yearned for "heroes" and considered the tradesman thoroughly mediocre. These were attitudes that reflected a resurgence of medieval and aristocratic values.

As secular religions, the totalitarian ideologies have yearned for a sense of transcendent destiny. In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler angrily raised the rhetorical question of why he had been born in "an age of shopkeepers" rather than during the Wars of Liberation "when a man, even without a business, was worth something." In Communist writing, the "Bolshevik heroes" and the Stakhanovite heroes of self-sacrificing labor typify this commitment of the individual to the larger entity.


It is not surprising, then, that modern liberals have also reflected this yearning for a secular religion. Thus, Martha Higley wrote in The New Republic in 1931 that "the life of a large portion of the population is meaningless, because there is no centralizing force in their lives, no feeling that they are part of a social system greater than the individual unit." TRB complained in 1961 that "our culture has a genius for demeaning greatness."6

Although I believe that these complaints about the emptiness of bourgeois life miss a great deal of the meaning that is actually there, I have made the point that a free society does need, as much as any other, a transcendent sense of meaning. I agree with the other philosophies that a daily life based on small preoccupations is not enough in itself to satisfy humanity's basic psychic needs. The historic failure of bourgeois life in this dimension is a vitally important one. The blame for it, though, is only partly the bourgeoisie's. The social critics are blind to the fact that a significant cause of the failure is due precisely to the intellectual culture's own choices. That culture has for almost two centuries thrown itself into alienation when it could have served as a vitally important component of a liberal society (in the historic sense of "liberal") and have worked to provide such meaning.

4. An oft-repeated charge is that bourgeois society is "hypocritical." In his preface to Civilization in the United States in 1921, Harold Stearns said that one of the themes appearing in most of the book's thirty essays was "that in almost every branch of American life there is a sharp dichotomy between preaching and practice." Anyone who lived through the New Left period of the late 1960s must certainly remember how often our society was charged with hypocrisy.7

It should be apparent, though, that hypocrisy, as a slippage between what is professed and what is actually done, is a universal human trait. It cannot be considered the exclusive possession of any particular culture. To stay on track, the discussion should debate the relative degree of hypocrisy.

I have not been able to find a detailed explanation of why modern liberalism feels that bourgeois society is more hypocritical than others. The absence of this explanation in the literature makes it a matter of conjecture.

My own analysis in the chapter on "Existential Problems in a Commercial Culture" in Understanding the Modern Predicament suggests that a special form of hypocrisy does exist within a commercial society. It arises out of the split that exists between the "extroverted outer flow" among people, which trivializes everything into what is pleasant, and the "radical solitude" of meaningful life to individuals. The very gregariousness that in so many ways makes our life pleasant also puts it under a veil of trivia. Real values are covered over and ignored. Anyone caring about those values will tend to think the resulting human relationships hypocritical.

The trivialization is a serious problem in the spiritual and intellectual life of our society. Whether, however, it creates a condition that justifies the contempt of intellectuals more than the hypocrisy within other cultures does is another question.

5. The social criticism has created a caricature of middle class individuals that is closely associated with the complaints I have mentioned. It pictures the typical bourgeois as uninspired, insipid and preoccupied with money and social status.

The classic stereotype along these lines was drawn by Sinclair Lewis in his 1922 book Babbitt. Lewis' theme has been summarized by Henry May: "George F. Babbitt was a realtor in Zenith, Ohio... Essentially confused and timid, he joined in the town's scramble for social prestige, its false, gregarious jollity...." May says that "much the same picture of dullness and conformity was painted by other poets and novelists, by foreign lecturers like Andre Siegfried, and by sociologists like the authors of Middletown...."8

Because of the currency of this stereotype, it is no surprise that George Babbitt is virtually the same character as George Bernard Shaw's Mr. Burgess in Candida. According to Shaw's stage directions, Burgess is a man "made coarse and sordid by the compulsory selfishness of petty commerce...a vulgar ignorant guzzling man...."9

The stereotype appears again in Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy when Dreiser describes Roberta Alden's father and family: "Titus Alden was one of that vast company of individuals who are born, pass through and die out of the world without ever quite getting any one thing straight...A single, serious, intelligent or rightly informing book had never been read by any member of this family -- not one. But they were nevertheless excellent, as conventions, morals and religions go -- honest, upright, God-fearing and respectable."10

6. This caricature of the middle class has been accompanied by an equally slashing attack upon the rural American, who is often depicted as ignorant, provincial, vicious and narrowly limited by an anti-intellectual fundamentalist Christianity.   H. L. Mencken wrote of "rustic ignoramuses" and said of William Jennings Bryan that he "seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the barnyard."11

This critique found its cause celebre in the Scopes trial in 1925 after John T. Scopes was charged with violating the Tennessee statute against the teaching of evolution. Clarence Darrow was the attorney for the defense, William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution. The New Republic editorialized that the statute had been "passed by the lunatic fringe -- a broad one -- in the Fundamentalist movement."12

It is worth noting that the critique has usually focused on the South, although it is actually broader than that would suggest. Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers are authors whose works are central to the alienated portrayal of the South.

The intellectual culture's hostility toward what it considers a "hick" America is important if we are to understand the depth of the reservations that liberal intellectuals felt toward both Lyndon Baines Johnson and Jimmy Carter. Given the literary history of the twentieth century in the United States, Johnson and Carter were inevitably outsiders, no matter how liberal their programs and rhetoric. To the intellectual culture they were essentially "peasants come home to the barnyard."

7. Actually, of course, the alienation has been a general one, not limited to either the middle class or the rural American. It is a mistake to break it down too sharply into specifics. The larger alienation has been visible in countless ways, and I have discussed it extensively in my writing. I will illustrate it here by a relatively small example: the inclination of  liberal authors to blame the nation as a whole for the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. In December, 1963, right after the first assassination, TRB's alienation was apparent when he spoke of "this hapless situation, set off by a senseless horror in Dallas, where they breed such things. There is a crackpot hatred in America...." Then in June, 1968, after the murder of Robert Kennedy by Sirhan Sirhan, a New Republic editorial said that the killing "tells us once more that we nurture in our society a disposition to violence." These are emotional outpourings expressed without regard to the specifics of the assassinations. They would hardly come from anyone who did not already feel deep alienation.13

8. Elitism will inevitably be an important characteristic of an intellectual culture that feels itself so superior to its milieu.

If this is surprising about American liberal ism, it is only because liberals have so long been the ideological champions of democracy, material equality and compassion. These values have been dictated by the political, ideological imperatives of their alliance with the have-nots. At first, it seems incongruous that such a democratically-oriented intellectual culture can also have been profoundly elitist. But anyone who thinks the various elements incompatible does not fully grasp the "layered" nature of liberalism.

"Majority rule" is supported whenever it is thought to lend itself to social legislation and to the forms of equality that liberalism pursues. Although liberalism sees itself as consistently democratic in the truest sense, majority rule, as such, will be subordinated to liberalism's other values if they conflict. One of the best examples is the Warren Court's striking down Proposition 14 which was passed by an overwhelming majority in a referendum in California and that sought to repeal that state's open-housing law. Another is the Court's having invalidated various state referenda that sought to reinstate a geographical component in the make-up of state senates after the Court's reapportionment decisions. The fact that large majorities had voted a certain way was not seen to matter. Both "majority rule" and the doctrine so popular with liberals in the 1920s and '30s of "let the local majorities experiment" were subordinated by the liberal majority on the Court at that time. Although some justices continued to espouse the judicial restraint that they had preached while conservatives dominated the Court, the Warren Court's majority was given to judicial activism.

The alienation and elitism that I have illustrated in this chapter are also prepared to subordinate the values of democracy, equality and compassion to other values. There is no natural affinity of the intellectuals for the have-nots, whom they know to be even less given to intellectual values than the bourgeoisie. For a century and a half, the intellectuals and the have-nots have been ideological allies as the Left has sought coalitions against the predominant middle class culture. Because that is a long time so far as the perspective of any given person is concerned, the illusion is created that the connection is permanent. This illusion is the reason for the surprise and disillusionment that has followed in the wake of the actual behavior of Communist regimes, in which a brutal elitism soon becomes apparent. (Ironically, the elitism of the intellectuals is often replaced by that of a clique of political cronies, such as under Stalin. But if the analysis made by Konrad and Szelenyi is to be credited, there is later a tendency for an elite of at least technocratic intellectuals to assume power.)14

9. There is a striking similarity between the social critique and elitism of American liberalism (and of the Left in general) and that of Burkean conservatism, which sees modern life through the lens of a medieval worldview.

When John Dewey wrote that "the individual has become lost through detachment from acknowledged social values" and that "individuals are loosened from the ties which once gave order and support to their lives," we could easily close our eyes and imagine that the words were written by Richard Weaver or Russell Kirk -- or, going back further, by Carlyle, Ruskin or Arnold in the 19th century or by Samuel Johnson in the 18th. The medievalist critique of bourgeois society has been overtly on the side of elitism. Its criticisms have been the same as the Left's, although it made them well before the Left came into being. The bourgeois has historically been seen as a vulgarian by those who have championed a leisured aristocracy. The proletarian, of course, has been thought of as even worse, although entitled to the noblesse oblige of the aristocracy.

A Burkean's rebuttal to this might well be to point to liberalism and the Left's attack on values, tradition and norms. That attack has joined forces with the very vacuity of which liberal social critics have complained and, increasingly as the 20th century goes on, with the rhythms of black culture. The result has been seriously to weaken the American social fabric in the twentieth century and to raise the neurotic hubbub to a pitch that is truly deafening. It is legitimate for the Burkean to argue that this is all very much at odds with conservative values.

Such a response, however, would miss the point about the layering. The Left's enthusiasm for Dadaistic nihilism and for various art forms such as that of the proletarian art of the 1930s or the black rhythms that predominate in the late 20th century is directly related to its enthusiasm for attacking what it sees as "bourgeois" values. The roots of this aesthetic militancy, however, lie in the same alienation from bourgeois culture that the Burkean has felt. The difference is that the Burkean, so long as he remains a Burkean, does not see fit to ally himself with the have-nots and with the more vulgar and hedonistic propensities of the middle class itself. The Left has done so precisely because of its active immersement in the preoccupations of its allies and be cause such an immersement has been consistent with its assault on the middle class's value system.

When in the preceding paragraph I pointed to the Left's support for "the more vulgar and hedonistic propensities of the middle class itself," I realized that I introduced an element that I have not discussed before. What is important to realize is that modern liberalism and the Left's negative critique of the middle class is not primarily an opposition to the middle class's weaknesses and vices, but precisely to its strengths and virtues. True, it dislikes the intellectual, aesthetic mediocrity that arises out of the middle class's preoccupation with daily life and competitive success; but it also opposes the very value system of competition, of the work ethic, of family discipline. It sees no incongruity, given its willingness to mold itself to its tactical needs, in supporting and promoting (as our predominantly liberal media do) the hedonistic and vulgar sides of the middle class psyche. It is this combination of the intellectual culture with both black culture and middle class hedonism that has given rise to the predominant cultural tone in the United States in the 20th century, especially since World War II.

We will see in a later chapter that many of the leading intellectuals of the American Left have moved to the right. Most have then embraced Burkean conservatism, not classical liberalism. This choice makes sense. It leaves intact certain fundamental aspects of their orientation: their elitism and their desire to stand outside the bourgeoisie.

10. Throughout this discussion, I have referred to the "defiance of convention" which has often been one of the consequences of the assault upon middle class values. The passage by Jerry Rubin illustrated it starkly. Although liberalism itself is given to dissimulation to avoid confrontation, there is a direct connection between liberalism's critique of the society and these more extreme expressions of the critique.

In 1927, The New Republic, speaking of the American theater, said that "in its defiance of convention it has been expressing a widely prevalent revolt against the manners and values of previous generations." This revolt is intellectually, artistically related to the revolutionary theater of the New Left sixty years later.16

In 1932, Malcolm Cowley looked back to the time when Dos Passos was a student at Harvard immediately before World War I. It was the time of the "Harvard esthetes," who believed that "society is hostile, stupid and unmanageable; it is the world of the philistines...That the poet... should, in fact, deliberately make himself misunderstandable... That art... is the poet's revenge on society." Cowley spoke of the poet's flight into mysticism "by any means in his power -- alcohol, drugs...."  This was the same period that the Dadaist school in Europe was proclaiming art as a weapon against the bourgeoisie and against art itself.17

In Exile's Return, Malcolm Cowley explained that the Dadaist impulse had actually gotten started in Europe in the early 19th century. (It is no coincidence, of course, that that would correspond with the Romantic movement, with its deep revulsion against modernity and bourgeois culture.) In the same book, Edmund Wilson told how the 19th century author Flaubert "with several of his friends once visited a brothel in Rouen. On a bet, before them all, he made love to a prostitute without removing his hat or taking the cigar from his mouth. The gesture was something more than an ugly boast. It announced a furious contempt for everything held sacred by society."18

Years later, Eldridge Cleaver explaiined that this concept of "revenge upon the culture," applied in a racial context, lay behind why "I became a rapist."  He said that "it seemed to me that the act of rape was an insurrectionary act. It delighted me that I was defying and trampling upon the white man's law, upon his system of values."19

11. A final point is important in its own right but is sufficiently different that it will also illustrate how far-reaching the implications of the rejection of American cultural values can be.

Liberal thought has often said that it wishes to divorce "middle class" moral judgments from the social policies directed toward the poor.

In part it has wanted to do so in order to "become more scientific." In Comte's three-part classification of historical stages, the scientific "positivist" phase would supplant the "metaphysical" phase that preceded it. Individual morality has been identified with the metaphysical phase (or with the theological phase, which was even earlier). An excellent example of the attempt to get away from so-called metaphysics and theology by applying a deterministic analysis to the exclusion of values is B. F. Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity.

In addition to wanting to become clinically scientific, liberalism has had motives dictated by the tactical needs of its ideology in its quest for alliances with the poor. By negating "middle class" moral values, liberal ideology has accomplished two things: First, it has made it possible for itself to be easily empathetic toward the poor by rejecting the need to make adverse judgments. Then, in an associated step, it has made itself "the enemy of their enemies." It has been able to oppose those who do have adverse moral judgments to make. These two aspects affect a number of practical issues.

We have seen, for example, an editorial such as the one in The New Republic in 1968 in which the editors denounced specific policies that were based upon moral evaluations. One was a Louisiana statute that made it a crime for someone to parent a second illegitimate child. Another was the rule that many states had adopted that provided that Aid to Families With Dependent Children would not be payable if there were an able-bodied man living in the household. It is in the context of such issues that modern liberalism has established the web of "non-judgmental" programs that exist today. The result is that a humanitarian concern for the poor has been replaced by a paternalism that is extended as well to the irresponsible poor. For this and a number of other reasons, the problem of irresponsibility in its endless variety, of in-dwelling barbarism within civilization, is one of today's most intractable problems.

A lesser, but functionally very compelling, reason for the divorce from the so-called "middle class" principles of personal responsibility has been to make it possible for social workers and other professionals to establish a non-judgmental working relationship with the poor. If for no other reason than to encourage those who are irresponsible to seek counseling, and to continue with it once begun, a non-judgmental relationship is considered necessary between the counselor and the subject. This causes professionals in such fields constantly to seek ways to depersonalize (i.e., render deterministic) the explanation of the causes of the distressed condition of their subjects. (I recently attended a school meeting on the drug problem in which the audience was told over and over again that "neither the young person nor the parent is to blame" for the child's having become an addict. This was said in the abstract, as a general principle negating anyone's responsibility. The facts of any given case were abstracted away in favor of the moral neutrality.

Such a stance may or may not be conducive to effective counseling, but it clearly is predicated on the assumption that moral constraints, socially enforced, are no longer important to modern society. We can only hope that after a few years enough moral perspective will remain to allow our society to evaluate the effects of this assumption, and to adopt a different principle if it is found not to have worked.


1. Henry David Thoreau, Walden-Essay on Civil Disobedience (New York: Airmont Publishing Company, Inc., 1965), p. 81.

2. Morris Cohen is quoted in Henry May, The Discontent of the Intellectuals: a Problem of the Twenties (Chicago: Rand McNally & Company, 1963), p. 23; New Republic, December 12, 1914, p. 21.

3. New Republic, April 17, 1915, p. 7 of the Literary Supplement; New Republic, June 4, 1930, p. 68.

4. Jerry Rubin, Growing (Up) at 37 (New York: Warner Books, 1976), pp. 140-142.

5. New Republic, April 24, 1929, p. 271; New Republic, April 16, 1930, p. 236; New Republic, April 8, 1967, p. 13.

6. New Republic, June 24, 1931, p. 152; New Republic, January 23, 1961, p. 2.

7. Harold E. Stearns (ed.), Civilization in the United States (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922), p. vi.

8. May, Discontent of the Intellectuals, pp. 30, 31.

9. Another Babbitt-like characterization of American culture is summarized in the review of Sherwood Anderson's Marching Man in the September 29, 1917, issue of New Republic, p. 249.

10. Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy (New York: The Heritage Press, 1962), p. 166.

11. Mencken is quoted by May in Discontent of the Intellectuals, p. 27.

12. New Republic, January 26, 1927, p. 260.

13. New Republic, December 7, 1963, p. 30.

14. George Konrad and Ivan Szelenyi, The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Inc., 1979).

15. New Republic, February 5, 1930, p. 296.

16. Two qualifications should be voiced with regard to what I have said in this paragraph: That my reference to black culture is by no means intended to be a universal condemnation of it; and that many dedicated members of the Left oppose the marriage with hedonism, wanting a purer method.

17. New Republic, February 23, 1927, p. 6.

18. New Republic, April 27, 1932, p. 303.

19. Malcolm Cowley, Exile's Return: A Narrative of Ideas (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1934), pp. 148, 151.

20. Ronald Berman, America in the Sixties: An Intellectual History (New York: The Free Press, 1968), p. 281.