Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Arguing the World

How do four Jewish working class boys who go to college for free in New York City in the 1930s and who dedicate themselves politically and intellectually to anti-Stalinist Marxism end up so differently as middle-aged adults? One becomes a neo-conservative and another strongly leans that way; a third turns into a middle of the road liberal; and the fourth stays true to socialism, though he finds himself at odds with 60s-style radicals. That is the story behind the film "Arguing the World" that we saw last week at MoMA. The four men, all of whom were loyal to Marxism when they went to City College in the 1930s, would go on to distinguished careers as four of America's best known public intellectuals. Irving Kristol became an advocate of the Reagan revolution. Nathan Glazer, a Harvard policy analyst, eschewed Reagan but still came to doubt the wisdom of affirmative action and other progressive policies. Daniel Bell, an incredibly insightful scholar whose liberal roots would be shaken by the student demonstrations at Columbia in 1968, at first attacked liberal politics and then, to a certain extent, re-embraced them. The outlier, Irving Howe, who would remain one of America's most stalwart socialists, never lost his taste for fierce debate but also retained his dream of a far more egalitarian America.

Howe, ever the outsider, never became a permanent resident of any university and started the radical magazine Dissent. Daniel Bell threw himself completely into the academic life at Columbia University, and when the students turned against it during the demonstrations of 1968, he turned against them. Glazer, never entirely his own man, became a circumspect sociology scholar and repeatedly took the cautious way forward, never seeming entirely comfortable with any position, and thus always on the verge of revising his viewpoint. And, of course, Irving Kristol, more than anyone, launched the neo-conservative movement. He, too, evaded academe for the most part, and unlike Glazer or Bell, he knew what he wanted and it had something to do with a laissez-faire state that took little responsibility for the least well off and used American's military might to frighten half the world for what he believed was a much greater global good. What Kristol lacked in logic and clarity of thought, he made up for with arrogance and unwarranted certainty.

In the film, the one holdout, the socialist Irving Howe, expresses some understanding and sympathy for the shifts in Bell's and Glazer's thinking, but he admits that Kristol makes no sense to him, having gone completely over to the other side where corporations are always in the right and ordinary people are usually in the wrong. In Howe's view, Kristol seems especially transparent about his hatred for participatory democracy.

What makes "Arguing the World" a great film is that we are given a picture of how these political positions evolve. It is one of those rare films that somehow gives you a sense of how change over time occurs, how people make shifts in their thinking, and how their personal experiences help to determine their political and ideological preferences.

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