The Values of Dissent

The Values of Dissent

Do you remember the proverbial “herd of independent minds”? That was critic Harold Rosenberg’s description, decades ago, of the New York intellectuals. These days some packs are still (alas!) on the left, some on the right, and some run somewhere in the famous “middle.” You are a Dissenter if you see a stampede and think it ought to be tripped up, whatever its origins.

Grammar tells us to dissent from something. Political engagement tells us we must be for something too. So negative and positive acts need to be partnered with each other. The point is not simply to denounce all those unhappy matters that we ought to protest: exploitation, bigotries (like those based on race, gender, or religion), poverty—you know the list, and there are, sadly, always additions to it. Smart dissent debunks but always seeks ways to make lives—or more generally, the framework of life—better.

It is a humanist venture and not a static one. Yet dissent, as a left-wing activity, sustains certain values, even if they are reshaped and take on different characteristics as the world changes. And if the left, or rather the best of the left, has stood for anything, it is the idea that liberty and democracy are sabotaged in societies that freeload on inequality.

Since Dissent’s origins were socialist, it is not especially remarkable that “social suffering” and “social cruelty” (they are usually counterparts) have always been among the magazine’s chief preoccupations. I put those two phrases in quotes because I heard them often during the Reagan era, when I first became involved with this magazine, from Irving Howe, Dissent’s moving spirit from its founding in 1953–4 until his death in 1993. “I can debate economic or social policy with a Reaganite,” he once said to me, and then wondered aloud, “but how do you argue with social meanness?” In other words, the argument was not simply about claims born of this or that policy. Egalitarian, democratic, and liberal values were at stake—together with a sense of decency.

Liberty, Poverty, Imagination

It is now some three decades after Reagan’s “sunrise in America”; the country is wobbling from an economic blow in 2008 that came about largely thanks to the kind of mythologies (and policies) proffered by him and then by the younger Bush—and before them by Barry Goldwater, and before him by the foes of the New Deal. Conservative politicians and their intellectual confidence games have been reinforced by what historian Richard Hofstadter famously summarized as “the paranoid style in American politics.” It has been most obvious in the well-funded aggressiveness of the Tea Party, together with its constituents in Congress, and those intellectuals who have made a profession of blaming poor people for their poverty or of insisting that profound inequalities are the price—when they are not the precondition...


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