Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism: From Criticism to Cultural Studies

James Seaton
Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1996
287 pp., $30.00

Henry Gonshak
English, MT Tech.-University of Montana

Given the dominance of political correctness in the humanities today, no doubt many professors and critics disenchanted with current radicalism are wondering if other schools of thought, other interpretative methodologies, might provide more intellectually appealing foundations for their teaching and writing. But while most anti-PC attacks now and then glowingly invoke an earlier critic or critical school--e.g., praising the apolitical New Critics who dominated the post-war era, or seconding Matthew Arnold's famous dictum that humanistic study should consist of "the best that is known and thought"--few defenders of the past have surveyed in depth the Western cultural tradition specifically in search of correctives to current trends. This is the task undertaken by Michigan State University English professor James Seaton in Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism: From Criticism to Cultural Studies.

Following an introductory section, Seaton spends the first half of the book studying a series of American critics from the early to mid-twentieth century--Lionel Trilling, Irving Babbit, H.L. Menken, Dwight Macdonald, Diana Trilling, Edmund Wilson and Ralph Ellison--whom he praises as "cultural conservatives" committed to the preservation of the principal ideas and texts of Western culture. In a key insight, Seaton maintains that the hallmark of all these thinkers is what he calls "cultural self-criticism"--a willingness to criticize not just others and other groups, but oneself and one's own culture as well. In the book's second part, Seaton discusses a collection of critics he sees as representing, to varying degrees, present-day PC: Leslie Fiedler, Susan Sontag, Fredric Jameson, Edward Said, Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish. He argues that "the revival of the tradition of discourse embodied in the works of [the first group of]...writers...would...contribute to the replacement of cultural warfare with debate"--in sharp contrast to the PC crowd, who, rejecting "disinterestedness in favor of politicization," are resolutely unself-critical (4).

Unfortunately, Seaton's worthy project is flawed by the disjointed nature of his study. In his "Acknowledgments," Seaton admits that much of the book is cobbled together from essays published over many years. As a result, Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism often reads more like a loosely connected collection of essays than a work developing a focused thesis. For example, the long analyses of both Mencken's egregiously misnamed In Defense of Women, and Wilson's brilliant study of Civil War writings, Patriotic Gore, while interesting in themselves, seem unrelated to Seaton's general defense of cultural conservatism and self-criticism.

A second problem is Seaton's often highly idiosyncratic choice of critics to exemplify the tradition he admires. Certain picks are clearly right, such as Wilson, Mencken, Macdonald and Lionel Trilling. As for the largely forgotten Irving Babbit, Seaton makes a fairly convincing argument that Babbit's often withering critiques of American education and politics are insightful, as well as relevant today. But Ralph Ellison and Dianna Trilling? Seaton admits that the criticism of neither writer is much regarded today by intellectuals of any political bent, especially in comparison to the towering figures with whom they're grouped. True, Ellison wrote one classic novel, Invisible Man, but his meager critical output has received scant attention. As for Diana Trilling (who died shortly after this study was finished), whether due to insufficient talent or the stifling legacy of her husband she completed just two books, both minor--one a memoir published when she was in her 80s, and the other a journalistic account of the celebrity killer Jean Harris. Of course, it's possible that both Ellison and Trilling are critics of genius who've been scandalously neglected by the intellectual establishment, but, if so, Seaton's sketchy discussions hardly make the case persuasively. If Seaton's real intention was to add a woman and an African-American to his coterie of model critics (assuming he'd ever stoop to anything so flagrantly PC) than surely, say, Mary McCarthy and James Baldwin would have been more logical choices.

As well, Seaton often insufficiently develops or inadequately clarifies major concepts and terms. For example, in his final chapter, he never elaborates and provides supporting examples for his provocative argument that, ironically enough, "the logical consequence of accepting diversity as a supreme ideal includes the acceptance and even the glorification of suffering, injustice, and hierarchy as necessary means to the 'maximization of diversity'" (234). (I assume Seaton's point is similar to the one made better in Richard Bernstein's Dictatorship of Virtue: How the Battle Over Multiculturalism is Reshaping Our Schools, Our Country and Our Lives that utopian multiculturalists back repressive schemes of social engineering.)

Seaton provides still less support for an even more unique proposition: that earlier ages were actually more, not less, embracing of multiculturalism than our own. Regarding definitions, while what Seaton means by "cultural conservatism" is clear enough, what he means by "political liberalism" is much less so. In Seaton's chapter on Dianna Trilling, e.g., the author is baffled by the firm distinction Trilling draws between her and her late husband's brand of liberalism and neoconservatism. "In place of a boundary based on differences in principles or philosophy there appears to be only a distinction based on the putative moral superiority of liberalism to conservatism," Seaton alleges, concluding that "philosophically and politically...the differences between the neoconservatives and either Lionel or Diana Trilling are minuscule and perhaps nonexistent" (67). The notion that there's no real difference between the liberalism espoused by the Trillings (basically anti-communist democratic socialism) and the neoconservatism of ex-liberals such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz would come as shocking news to both sides. Given Seaton's consistent animus toward the academic left, coupled with his equally consistent defense of conservative views on politics, religion and culture, I suspect by "political liberalism" he means nothing more than an adherence to basic democratic principles held by all save those on the lunatic fringe. Perhaps his study should have been titled Cultural Conservatism, Political Conservatism.

Still, the book has strengths. While always fair and balanced (the only current critic he totally skewers is Fredric Jameson), Seaton offers many shrewd criticisms of PC, particularly of such trendy fields as "Cultural Studies"--noting, e.g., that the discipline asserts two contradictory positions, on the one hand insisting on "the 'contingency' of all points of view," while, on the other, pledging itself "to radical cultural and political change," a commitment that implies a belief in some absolute moral truth. But Seaton isn't thrilled either with PC's two leading conservative critics, E.D. Hirsch and the late Allan Bloom. He faults Hirsch for advocating the teaching of "cultural literacy" not because it possesses any intrinsic worth, but merely because it is the public discourse of our culture. And Seaton sees Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind as an impassioned polemic bolstered less by rational argument than by an appeal to some nebulous Absolute Truth revealed only to Platonic "philosopher kings" like Bloom himself. However, while Seaton explicates well the tradition of cultural conservatism he prefers to either contemporary anti- or pro-PC, he never explains in depth just how this approach provides both a damning critique of, and a superior counter-tradition to, current orthodoxies of both the left and right. Since I fully agree with Seaton that the older critical school is far superior to any found today, I was especially disappointed by the weakness of his argument.

As I've suggested, Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism's most important contribution is its lucid defense of cultural self-criticism, which Seaton finds, e.g., in Lionel Trilling's trenchant attacks on liberal dogmatism in The Liberal Imagination, as well as in the young (thought not the old) Leslie Fiedler's unsparing indictments of such left-wing "martyrs" as Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg--despite Fiedler's own confessed radical allegiances. Seaton is quite right that a good critic looks primarily within, at one's self and one's own culture, and he's right, too, in his gloomy assessment that, on the contrary, so much of today's PC criticism simply self-righteously attacks other individuals and groups (especially white males, dead or alive).

But Seaton has overlooked a number of fine current critics who are engaged in precisely the kind of cultural self-criticism he advocates. For example, African-American critics like Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. have penned scathing attacks on Afrocentrism and black anti-Semitism, while such professed feminists as Daphne Patai, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Christina Hoff-Sommers have vocally criticized the male-bashing and reverse sexism found in many Women's Studies programs and feminist organizations. To cite a recent example, Frank Lentricchia (long so militantly PC he was dubbed the "Dirty Harry" of literary studies) published a fervent mea culpa in one of the latest issues of the academic review Lingua Franca, renouncing his allegiance to Marxism, postmodernism, deconstructionism, et al., in favor of an old-fashioned reveling in great literature's aesthetic delights. Now that Dirty Harry has turned into F.R. Leavis, perhaps it's time to do a study of this still small but rapidly growing school of contemporary cultural self-criticism.

Contents | Home