New Role for Progressives

Boomers were rightly reform-minded, but what about the excesses involved?

THIS is a message to members of my generation who helped launch the progressive movement called the counterculture 25 years ago:

Have you noticed the moral energy these days is on the cultural right? The most impassioned social analyses are not from those trying to create a new society, but from those trying to restore traditional values.

This is not how it was when we formed our political attitudes. Confronted by a society in need of self-examination, we in the counterculture had something to say. We managed with our fervor to change the terms of cultural discussion and some of the directions of America's development.

Racism and sexism didn't disappear; but they ceased to be acceptable notions. A self-congratulatory historical self-image was made to incorporate a darker side, as we disinterred the hearts at Wounded Knee and exposed lies and crimes in the White House, the CIA, and the FBI - institutions that were supposed to safeguard our democracy.

Much of what we had to say needed to be heard, to correct what had gone wrong.

The situation today is different. Now, in many arenas, it is the very forces we helped unleash, taken to extremes, that threaten the health of our country.

These excesses have spurred conservatives to do something they seemed incapable of a generation ago: think with clarity and depth about American society, and argue for values that make sense and serve real human needs. Not all their arguments are reactionary ``backlash.'' To gain a more balanced vision of a better society, progressives must listen. * We were right that America had a history of racial injustice to be corrected. But neither white liberals nor black activists serve justice or social advancement by making civil rights a matter of redressing collective grievances more than of providing equal individual opportunity. This approach to civil rights has frozen a generation of African Americans into the role of aggrieved victims. Social responsibility is important, but it cannot replace an ethic of personal responsibility.

Shelby Steele argues persuasively in ``The Content of Our Character'' that though white racism still exists, it is no longer at the heart of the problem for African Americans. Now the main obstacle to black advancement lies in attitudes that impair the vigorous pursuit of available opportunities. However much that obstacle is the legacy of past wounds, there are limits to the role society can play in removing them. As Steele argues, it is crippling to treat reasons as excuses.

* We were right that judgments of right and wrong are often heavily tainted with prejudice. But that doesn't mean judgments of right and wrong are wholly relative. It is one thing to acknowledge that the American way of life is not the only way; it is different to say that Auschwitz was acceptable because it was a matter of Nazi values. Our culture may have needed shaking; but moral relativism may dash it to pieces.

William Kilpatrick makes a good case, in ``Why Johnny Can't Tell Right From Wrong,'' that the effort to bring a more tolerant moral vision into American classrooms has fostered the idea that morality is purely subjective, like one's taste in ice cream flavor. This has helped create a morally confused generation of youth.

* We were right that society stigmatized differences and enforced conformity in unjustifiable ways. But such stigmatization should not be replaced with the idea that all differences are to be celebrated equally.

A child should not feel less worthy if he or she comes from a ``broken home.'' But there is no point in denying that the increasing number of single-parent households is bad news. Barbara Defoe Whitehead and James Q. Wilson make a good case that America has seen an erosion of ``family values,'' and that this abandonment of traditional understandings has helped set the stage for some of the frightening violence now being played out in the schools and on the streets.

The list goes on: A much-needed movement to increase the respect women are afforded and the power they wield has led to the denigration of men and the virtues they have traditionally embodied. Some of these virtues we have depended on for our survival in a dangerous world.

Appropriate critiques of Western civilization have turned into a demonization of our cultural roots, as if profound flaws are not found in all human cultures. And an appreciation of cultural diversity has wrought a disregard for the importance of a shared core culture to hold us together.

It is not surprising that efforts to correct the deficiencies of the established order failed to produce a pure social wisdom. That is not the way human affairs work. Instead, one extreme view gives rise to another; the pendulum swings. Encountering conservative values in a toxic form, many of us found it difficult to discern how those values, cleansed of their contaminants, are essential to a healthy society.

No one side of our cultural dispute has a monopoly on truth. The challenge is to find ways of integrating various truths. How will we do so?

On the right - where immutable truths are supposed to be handed down - admitting errors is regarded as a sign of weakness. That world view, with its virtue of steadfastness, has the defect of making self-correction difficult. Those who believe that life's questions must be found through honest exploration can see the admission of errors as a strength.

It may be up to progressives to lead the way out of a polarized moral discourse. To heal our cultural rift, we can begin listening to the impassioned critiques of our excesses. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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