“Modern society acknowledges no neighbor.”

Separate thinkers have often thought the same thoughts when the time was ripe. The same needs will be felt, or the same things will be perceived wrong by sociologists in California and philosophers in the Midwest. Perhaps this means our minds are so social that a sense of alienation, an inkling of disorder, a sag in the general quality of life sets off similar alarms in thinkers around the country. And that truth, if it is one, is a major element of the thought ripening now: We are social creatures who cannot flourish without traditions, common institutions, and each other. Contrary to what the existentialists say, we require social identities, while too much individualism makes us miserable and alienated. This is the New Communitarianism in American social thought, a theme of countless essays and at least a dozen books published in the past few years, including John McDermott’s Streams of Experience.

This renewed appreciation of the “organic” nature of society can make conservatives find virtues in Marx—it is conservatives and not liberals who have recently talked loudly about our sociality, and protested if liberals claimed exclusive interest in the “community.” Marx did have some funny, 19th-century economic ideas, but they can be politely ignored. The American left selects from another page of Marx’s menu, their radical individualism keeping them suspicious of social identity. Retaining only those funny economic ideas, they create the phenomena of individualist and even libertarian Marxists. The liberal’s fear is that “community” leads to the social black hole of a totalitarian block-state, while the conservative’s fear is loss of community, communication, and being.

McDermott says, “In the 20th century, anyone who studies anything and is unaware of Marx is in a state of ignorance.” He offers two “salient contentions” of Marx: “[First, that institutions condition consciousness rather than the reverse; second, that our fundamental situation is to be in a state of alienation.” There is, running through McDermott’s thought and much of the American pragmatist tradition, a sense of the relatedness of things, of a social world in which people are not marbles rattling in a box. The American classic philosophers—Pierce, Royce, James, Santayana. Mead, Dewey—lived, after all, in the twilight of the Hegelian philosophical empire. But it is Hegel held at arm’s length, for, like William James, McDermott believes that the relations between things are objective and “external”—he certainly does not hold that the Prussian (or Soviet or American) state is “mind on earth.”

“Marx, Durkheim, Mead, Dewey, have it right. The self is a social construct,” writes McDermott. He is a pragmatist who is more Hegelian than the classic American pragmatists, and sometimes he wants to be a flower in a crannied wall: “What, for example, could time do to us if every time we met a person, or thought a thought, or dreamt a dream, we involved every person ever met, every thought ever thought, and every dream ever dreamt?”

He praises pluralism, interrelatedness, transience, flux, tensions, and process; this is our “form of life” which is precious and unique—an offering we have to give ourselves and the world in the 21st century. But, McDermott sees it faltering:

Put directly, the . . . originality of America is strapped to its belief in the sacredness of time, its celebration of journey and transiency, and its aversion to ideology, eschatology, and final solutions. The inversion of this order of priorities will sink us as a culture.

We are guilty, he says, of a failure of nerve and the ability to be true to ourselves.

McDermott swims effortlessly in American intellectual history and currents of thought. He speaks of the perpetual conflict between individualism and community, personified in James and Royce. He reminds us how good a philosopher Dewey can be, and how his Hegelian youth makes Dewey understand our social selves. Dewey, he says rightly, is the most sophisticated, honest, and imaginative of American social thinkers. Probably the reason John Dewey is not read in philosophy departments is because he is cited so much in education departments.

McDermott sees causes of our present social plight in World War II, Vietnam, and Watergate; but how can he cover the subject without mentioning blacks? He is devoted to classic American philosophers, from Pierce and Emerson through Dewey, but when he says what they have to tell contemporary America, he gets fuzzy. This may be because he has thought longer, harder, and better about Emerson, James, Royce, and Dewey than about the problems confronting present day America. Or, it may be because the philosophers themselves haven’t as much to tell contemporary America as McDermott would like.

In his chapter on “Classical American Philosophy” McDermott tries again to relate his philosophers to American society. It is not easy. Except for Dewey, they were almost as distant and unconcerned about society as the linguistic analysts who followed them, while the positivists of the 30’s and 40’s had something new to say about science and philosophy, Anglo- American philosophers reached their nadir of irrelevance and preciousness in the 50’s and 60’s, when they were completely absorbed in the minute scholastic analyses of words and “concepts.” A sizable segment of philosophers today carry on the tradition of the 50’s and 60’s, but a growing number are willing to dirty their hands with the empirical and talk about moral problems and public policy.

On the topic of education, McDermott asks for cultural literacy. According to him, the gap between rich and poor, more than between black and white, is what endangers the nation. His solution is to make the “historical dimension of every discipline an integral aspect” of education. Democritus is to be a part of the physics curriculum. After providing for basics, education is to concentrate on “autobiography/biography, botany and physiology, sculpture, and theater.” This is, to say the least, quaint, given the terrible problems of slum schools. It does not sound like thinking of someone closely connected with the problems of the schools.

McDermott extends his organic conception to architecture and the body—the body, he thinks, is not a container in a world of boxes. We are not atoms in the void, bumping, permeable, diaphanous, interpenetrating. Yes, but even when what he says about society’s problems sounds right, it is hard to find it in the philosophers, and when the philosophers are stating their main concerns it has little to do with society. McDermott thinks that the golden age of American philosophy understood American society and its problems better than the philosophers of today. The sad truth is that none of them, then or now, took the time as professional philosophers to really examine American institutions and social problems. Dewey comes closest.

Whereas Streams of Experience is panoramic, Lee Bollinger’s The Tolerant Society is narrowly focused. It is a closely reasoned book which wonderingly examines our tolerance of extremist and intolerant speech that is clearly more dangerous than some behavior we unhesitatingly make illegal. Why is it that “[n]owhere else in life do we insist on such a level of self-restraint”?

Bollinger presents two models of free speech defense. According to the “classical model,” free speech helps truth emerge and is essential for democracy. The classical model, Bollinger says, insufficiently recognizes that “we suffer a serious loss when we strip ourselves of the use of legal restraints against speech behavior we regard as socially destructive.” The “fortress model” maintains there is a constant threat to free speech and that we need to erect our legal barricades at some distance from the center.

Bollinger thinks it is right to let the American Nazis march through the Jewish neighborhood in Skokie, Illinois. His argument is psychological and complex. Toleration of genuinely offensive and dangerous speech, he contends, is a limited exercise in self-restraint that. symbolizes our recognition of our more general impulse to intolerance. Toleration nurtures an ethic of self-restraint; it holds before us the intolerant mind we are to avoid in ourselves and reminds us that in each of us is a shadow of the Nazi mind.

He calls his view the “general tolerance theory” and sees its justification in “symbolically demonstrating a capacity for self-control” over intolerant feelings. It is like a religious fast. Bollinger seems to imply that if we were not sorely tempted by intolerance, such exercises in self-restraint would be unnecessary, and then it would be best to ban the Nazi march.

Bollinger offers Alexander Meiklejohn’s appeal to “community” as a precursor of his argument. Meiklejohn sees tolerance as a way the community defines itself, just as punishing criminals is said to reinforce both the criminals’ and the society’s social identity. But Meiklejohn’s argument can be used to yield the opposite conclusion. A community does affirm its identity by banning or punishing what strikes at its common good, as the Nazi march certainly did. Bollinger implies that the public values threatened by extremist speech have less need for community affirmation than has the value of toleration (because of its symbolic connection with toleration in general). But is this obvious? What of the symbolic connection of the Nazi contempt for Jews with contempt for anyone? And the fact that tolerating the disorder caused by the Nazi march is symbolic of tolerating disorder in general?

The toleration of extremist speech, for Bollinger, is essentially pedagogic and character-building. It is a walking-on-hot-coals theory of why we should tolerate marching Nazis and Ku Klux Klan rallies, “to test and develop a general character of mind through confrontation.”

What, then, are the limits to extremist speech? He raises the question and discusses or mentions libel, obscenity, graffiti, Little Black Sambo, and feminist objections to pornography. He concludes that we withdraw tolerance when self-restraint is just too difficult to maintain. One expects a theory to supply a stronger way to draw a line—this is not an obvious outcome of his general tolerance theory.

The problem with graffiti, Bollinger says, is that it is done secretively, like an obscene phone call. But that may not be the right reason. The problem with graffiti is that tolerating it shows that society’s moral self-confidence and self-respect have faltered. A city or subway system that tolerates graffiti is like a school that abandons its rituals and lets its appearance go to pot. Tolerating disorder and graffiti weaken our sense of community. Such magnanimity diminishes citizens’ confidence in a public space in which the behavior of strangers i$ reasonably predictable and not frightening.

The general question, whether there is too much freedom in America, bears directly on graffiti, extremist speech, and obscenity. Tolerance is an important value, and Bollinger is as subtle and persuasive as any writer I know in taking free speech and tolerant character seriously. As he sees it, they require that we tolerate Nazi and Klan marches.

Is, on the other hand, the toleration of Nazi marches like the acceptance of graffiti and general disorder? Bollinger rightly claims that the usual utilitarian arguments fail to justify extremist speech, and he offers: us subtler utilitarian arguments instead. But they are mere techniques—witnessing intolerance, testing oneself, reinforcing a tolerant character, etc.—which assume that a society as tolerant as he proposes is best. Bollinger doesn’t show that the need for community and felt security is outweighed by the pedagogic benefits of tolerating people who preach the subhumanity of most of our species while hinting at violent means to achieve their ends.

Belonging to a community involves a proprietary sense toward it, an assumption of a social identity, and genuine sacrifices of freedom. There are points at which tolerance and the requirements of community clash, and it is in no way obvious that community must yield in the notorious cases Bollinger discusses. This moral controversy, as most others of importance, takes place on slippery ground: “If you ban the Nazis then you can ban the so-and-sos and then the Episcopalians.” But the rational approach to slippery ground is not to refuse to enter it, thus remaining pinned at one of the two extremes, but to dig in our claws and stop when our judgment tells us we have gone as far as we should. At a certain point, taking rights seriously while disregarding the wrongs presents us with a slovenly and alienating society, where disorder, symbolic threats, and diminished expectations of civility tell us we have slid too far.


[Streams of Experience: Reflections on the History and Philosophy of American Culture, by John J. McDermott (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press) $25.00]

[The Tolerant Society: Freedom of Speech and Extremist Speech in America, by Lee C. Bollinger (New York: Oxford University Press) $19.95]