“Socialism,” wrote Dostoevsky in The Possessed, “spreads among us chiefly because of sentimentality.” He was, of course, writing about upper-middle class, 19th-century Russian society, but a reading of Tmubled Journey: From Pearl Harbor to Ronald Reagan (Hill and Wang; New York) by Frederick Siegel suggests that the rise of the American New left during the 1960’s was also made possibleby the spread of rootless sentimentality during the 50’s. Among conservatives, the 50’s are often uncritically lauded as a time of social stability when leftism was vigorously opposed both at home and abroad. But, however bravely the Marines may have fought at Inchon, and however zealously the House UnAmerican Activities Committee may have pressed its case in Hollywood, middle America in the 50’s was in the process of surrendering its religious convictions, the most important stay against the sentimentality that precedes leftist innovation.
Though long deeply divided over questions of religious doctrine, Americans have for most of their history been firmly united in pondering such questions with unsentimental moral seriousness. In the 1950’s, Dr. Siegel shows, that changed, as doctrinal religion melted into “a syrupy religion of good feelings” in which the pursuit of personal and familial happiness was guided by an outlook “relaxed, unadventurous, comfortably satisfied with…life and blandly optimistic about the future.” Failing to perceive the absence of religious rigor signaled by this complacence, John F. Kennedy, who “wore his religion lightly,” offered an entertainment-seeking nation the enthusiasm of his own elitist sentimentalism. A vibrant government of heroes and technocrats, a “guerrilla administration” of “the best and the brightest,” would move America out of the doldrums with high-sounding rhetoric, technical expertise, and a few Green Berets. Fed by the spectacle of Camelot, national sentimentalism was even more pronounced, widespread, and insatiable at Kennedy’s death. When the gallantry of the Green Berets did not secure the quick and impressive victory in Vietnam of which Kennedy was confident, then the elitism, theatricality, and activism which he had employed in initiating it became the trademarks of the upper-middle-class counterculture who opposed it. Hence, it was JFK, Siegel argues, who had set the tone for “radical chic.”
Meanwhile, true to Dostoevsky’s maxim, LBJ rode the tide of liberal sentimentalism toward socialism with the Great Society programs that massively expanded America’s welfare-state apparatus. “The idea of the Great Society,” Siegel notes, “…was a substitute for the older set of political and moral ideals which had been displaced” during the 50’s and early 60’s. The momentousness of this shift is perceptively explained by Siegel: “The private virtues essential for the public life of a democracy, now eroded, were to be supplied by the state, an extraordinary departure in American political thought. (Shortly the New Left would mimic the moral claims of the Great Society by offering itself as a replacement for those same lost virtues.)”
Though Siegel’s own fondness for secular left-liberalism weakens his argument at key points, his study well illuminates how sentimental religious laxity among the many has produced frenetic activism in and out of government among the few.