Rebels of the Phony ‘50s


From The American Prospect:

Around 1950, Americans began to see signs of a new kind of discontent. A generation of young rebels started popping up in fiction and films — Holden Caulfield, the characters played by Marlon Brando and James Dean — who were fleeing from or revolting against the phoniness of American life and white middle-class adulthood.

America’s iconic heroes had always included plenty of rebels, going clear back to the nation’s founders, but white middle-class American adulthood wasn’t what bothered them. Brando’s and Dean’s predecessors included weary figures like Humphrey Bogart’s characters and anarchic tough guys like James Cagney’s. They weren’t young, and they had nothing against middle-class whites per se.

The attraction that outsider (chiefly, black) authenticity held for the white middle class, Hale argues, is crucial for understanding much of postwar liberalism and the white New Left in particular. Her perspective is particularly helpful in charting the New Left’s evolution after whites were expelled in 1966 from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which had been the primary organization bringing together young black and white leftists. The white New Left thereafter not only intensified its focus on opposing the Vietnam War but also identified itself with Third World revolutionary movements. Radicals even redefined young whites as an outcast vanguard unto themselves, as Jerry Farber did in a classic of the period, his 1967 article “The Student as Nigger.”

Hale’s argument is a helpful addition to our understanding of the American left, but she also applies it unconvincingly to the postwar American right. To be sure, unlike such earlier conservatives as Robert Taft and Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley had a playful and rebellious air. The American establishment had moved just enough to the left (there’s that New Deal again) so that a young conservative could rail against it. But Buckley wasn’t upset with white middle-class life. Hale lumps such latter-day right-wingers as the Young Americans for Freedom and even anti-abortionist Randall Terry into this anti-liberal-establishment rebellion, but the nuance that made her dissection of the left so resonant is missing here. The causes and role models embraced by the postwar young and the New Left were, in fact, new and distinctive, but those that the postwar right upheld were decidedly more conventional. At least as far back as Lexington and Concord, Americans have been claiming the mantle of rebellion, but while some are genuine revolutionaries, most are retreads.