Keep talkin' happy talk… till the fat lady sings…


Keep Talkin’ Happy Talk

Thank you for giving Jackson Lears enough space to write, so eloquently, about the pursuit of happiness [“Get Happy!!” Nov. 25]. His comparative, historical approach made my mind very happy. Truly.

Ellen Strenski
los angeles

Thank you for Jackson Lears’s wonderful multi-book review, parsing the slippery concept of “happiness” and exposing the core of our contemporary malaise. Nathaniel Hawthorne opined, “Happiness is a butterfly which when pursued is always just beyond your grasp; but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” About the excesses of imperial Rome, the Stoic Seneca observed, “And now it has come to this, that to want only what is enough is to be considered both boorish and utterly deprived.” Bookends for the stack of books reviewed.

R.L. South
darlington, pa.

Every now and then I think about letting my Nation subscription lapse. And every now and then there’s a piece like Jackson Lears’s, and I know I never will.

Jennie Uleman
purchase, n.y.

I started to read Jackson Lears’s review but was immediately annoyed by the vagueness of his shot at Steven Pinker as a “propagandist” who had confused science with scientism. Lears does exactly what he accuses Pinker of doing: he conflates science with scientism (“The most problematic applications of scientism have usually arisen in the behavioral sciences”). He goes on to say the behavioral sciences’ data “are alleged to reveal an ‘enduring human nature.’”

Given his artful use of the passive voice, I cannot be sure that Lears believes there is such a thing as “human nature.” I concluded then that I would not trust anything else he had to say. There is such a thing as human nature, and it has been molded in large part by our evolutionary past. Sneerers, even in The Nation, seem so uninterested in facts.

Tim Cliffe
emmitsburg, md.

Lears Replies

I much appreciate the enthusiasm for my essay, which apparently spoke to many readers directly. It appears there are many as frustrated by the happiness industry as I am, and as eager to restart public discussion of what constitutes the good life. As for Mr. Cliffe, I’m a little perplexed about how to respond to a critic who proudly claims that after skimming the first page he could not trust a word I wrote. So let me quickly address his main concern: I do believe there is something we can call human nature, rooted in the biology common to all human beings. But to invoke human nature as an explanation for why people do the things they do is to leave out all the most interesting variables (history, culture, politics, economics) that shape human motives under particular circumstances. Human nature is only the beginning of the discussion, not the end of it—as most devotees of the phrase seem to assume. Life is more interesting than they realize.

Jackson Lears
ringoes, n.j.

…Till the Fat Lady Sings

Prediction, Yogi Berra observed, is difficult—especially about the future. Writing history also presents problems, especially about the past. Writing about Dissent, Eric Alterman is eager to absolve its first generation and its successors of excessive passion to change the world, rather than realistic resignation to modest, if serial, improvements in it [“Liberalism’s Bullpen,” Nov. 18]. I have read Dissent since its founding in 1954 and have written for it almost as long. I do not recognize the journal he describes.  

Irving Howe from the Bronx and Lewis Coser from Berlin were acute and critical heirs of Marxist traditions—and devoted to the radical aspects of the US legacy. They and their colleagues founded Dissent to provide a site for a new American social criticism. They eschewed ritualized anticommunism and pledges of intellectual allegiance to the limitless national narcissism of the new American consensus. Dissent’s pages were impiously sardonic and open to immoderates like Norman Mailer. The early Dissent decades included major re-evaluations of the Marxist legacy by Franz Neumann and Herbert Marcuse, arguments on Freud, and C. Wright Mills’s defense of his work. Dissent carried reports from Western Europe (and some far reaches of the United States) unavailable elsewhere. In Western Europe it was viewed as evidence that it was still possible in America to express the negativity deplored by the anxious prophets of an inauthentic normalcy. Michael Harrington, with his inspired contributions, somehow escaped Alterman’s notice. 

Alterman’s description of the argument between Howe and the early 1960s movement is deformed. It was not about Stalinism but about US imperialism, not least in Vietnam. Dissent, even when it was rather too discreet (as on Israel’s occupation of Palestine), has a record of inquiry exemplary in the US cultural firmament. To write of it as if it were a psalter extirpates its past.

Norman Birnbaum
Editorial board, The Nation

Alterman Replies

My friend Norman Birnbaum apparently believes that Dissent has been more successful in promoting “socialism”—whatever that may mean in this context—in the United States than I do. I’m pleased to offer him the opportunity to toot the horn of a publication I treasure, though surely Norman must know that Michael Harrington could not have escaped my notice. (And if he really does believe this, he should take a look at my recent history of postwar US liberalism, The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism From Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.) What Harrington escaped, together with Norman Mailer, C. Wright Mills and others, were the space constraints The Nation places on its columnists. 

As to my “deformed” discussion of Dissent’s disagreements with SDS: I was speaking about a particular moment in a particular meeting. And having confirmed the contents of that discussion with participants of that meeting, as well as with various historical accounts, I stand by its accuracy. Then again, as Yogi remarked regarding virtually all historical/epistemological disputes lacking clearly defined ideological/etymological parameters, it ain’t over till it’s over.

Eric Alterman
new york city

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