New Lamps For Old

Hillary Clinton isn’t known for many memorable speeches. An exception might be the commencement speech she delivered when she graduated from Wellesley College in 1969, which is worth reading in full and includes these heady passages:

  We’ve had lots of empathy; we’ve had lots of sympathy, but we feel that for too long our leaders have viewed politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible. What does it mean to hear that 13.3 percent of the people in this country are below the poverty line? That’s a percentage. We’re not interested in social reconstruction; it’s human reconstruction. How can we talk about percentages and trends? The complexities are not lost in our analyses, but perhaps they’re just put into what we consider a more human and eventually a more progressive perspective…

We are, all of us, exploring a world that none of us even understands and attempting to create within that uncertainty. But there are some things we feel, feelings that our prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life, including tragically the universities, is not the way of life for us. We’re searching for more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living. And so our questions, our questions about our institutions, about our colleges, about our churches, about our government continue. The questions about those institutions are familiar to all of us. We have seen them heralded across the newspapers. Senator Brooke has suggested some of them this morning. But along with using these words—integrity, trust, and respect—in regard to institutions and leaders, we’re perhaps harshest with them in regard to ourselves.

Every protest, every dissent, whether it’s an individual academic paper or Founder’s parking lot demonstration, is unabashedly an attempt to forge an identity in this particular age. That attempt at forging for many of us over the past four years has meant coming to terms with our humanness. Within the context of a society that we perceive—now we can talk about reality, and I would like to talk about reality sometime, authentic reality, inauthentic reality, and what we have to accept of what we see—but our perception of it is that it hovers often between the possibility of disaster and the potentiality for imaginatively responding to men’s needs. There’s a very strange conservative strain that goes through a lot of New Left, collegiate protests that I find very intriguing because it harkens back to a lot of the old virtues, to the fulfillment of original ideas. And it’s also a very unique American experience. It’s such a great adventure. If the experiment in human living doesn’t work in this country, in this age, it’s not going to work anywhere.

But we also know that to be educated, the goal of it must be human liberation. A liberation enabling each of us to fulfill our capacity so as to be free to create within and around ourselves.

Hillary Rodham '69, student speaker, Commencement 1969.

It’s interesting to me how closely young Hillary’s vision for the future of politics corresponds to Bruce Charlton’s description  throughout his book Thought Prison of political correctness as emerging from the merger and marriage of Old Left (boring) bureaucracy with New Left (ecstatic) dissent:

Old Left – New Left
Perhaps the New Left 1960s counter-culture would have happened even without a mass media to report and record it?
Perhaps the children of the intellectual elite would still have rebelled against the dullness, boredom and alienation of modernity – even if they were not being sympathetically shown ‘rebelling’ on TV and in newspapers?
But without the mass media, the student revolutionaries, tenured radicals and crypto-communist fifth columnists would have had no lasting influence on national life.
Inchoate, hedonic rebellion is of itself fragmented, directionless and unsustainable.
It fizzles out.
*
But as it happened, the mass media was there, and the New Left did not fizzle out, but instead became integral to the mass media, which is to say that it became part of the West’s cognitive processing.
*
Of course, the New Left cannot rationally be integrated with the Old Left; visceral hedonism cannot be fused with bureaucracy.
But they can be alternated in the human mind and in public discourse; and one can support the other.
*
The Old Left bureaucracy is the basis and mechanism of governance, that which holds-together modern society, that which allocates goods.
But Old Left bureaucracy on its own is psychologically intolerable, a dull and demotivating machine that grows itself but which is even less bearable for the bureaucrats than for their victims.
*
The New Left injected into this scenario counter-cultural but subjective qualities such as excitement (especially sexual and otherwise transgressive), ‘purpose’ (subversion, inversion), ‘direction’ (towards greater pleasure and less suffering), and variety (e.g. multi-culturalism, the ‘other’).
The New Left made the Old Left interesting and inspiring and idealistic for officials – but at a cost.
The cost of incoherence, fragmentation, delusional psychosis.
*
What was necessary to sustain the New Left countercultural spirit was that it became connected-with Old Left bureaucracy.
What was necessary to the Old Left organization was New Left engagement.
Result? Morally self-righteous bureaucracy.
Feel-good committees plus hype: a definition of PC.

 

 

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