America has been on the brink before—and not so long ago.
If you were a forty-year-old in 1955, your life would have already spanned most of World War I, the Spanish flu pandemic, the convulsive birth of the Soviet Union, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany, World War II, the communist takeover in China, and the Korean War; closer to home, you would have witnessed McCarthyism and the growing pressures for remediation of ongoing and unresolved racial injustice—for all of the manifest good of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Emmett Till was murdered in 1955. During those four decades from 1915 to 1955, the nation had faced crisis after crisis, and, had this been your life, you would have known little else but a nation on the brink.
Then, as now, these national trials were rightly recognized as existentially momentous, and then, as now, there was wide and deep controversy over how to make sense of them. Over this span, sensible voices across the political spectrum—John Dewey, Reinhold Niebuhr, Walter Lippmann, Richard Weaver, Peter Viereck, and Russell Kirk, among others—simultaneously worried that the normative resources that underwrote liberal democracy in America were flagging and committed themselves to addressing these challenges. They differed aggressively over how.
In the middle decades of the twentieth century, the public and political discussion about this succession of crises gave birth to what the cultural critic Mark Greif has described as “the age of the crisis of man,” a crisis in the ethics of a universalizing humanism—of the meaning of “man,” per se.11xMark Greif, The Age of the Crisis of Man (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016). In America, the vast literature produced by political commentators, social scientists, and other scholars articulated the range of urgent challenges facing humankind and proposed an anthropology and ethics upon which national solidarity around liberal democracy might be re-established. It was an aspirational solidarity, to be sure, but one that might bind and heal a broken, fragmented, conflicted world.
It becomes clear in retrospect that the participants in this discourse were trying to do the cultural work of a universalizing religion, without actually being religious in any recognizable sense. The echoes of Dewey’s project of reconstructing “a common faith” for liberal democracy reverberated throughout this literature. Indeed, the language of midcentury humanism was often inspiring, comforting, warm, and reassuring, but it was also unburdened by the complexity of the history of actual communities. “Man” was an abstraction, without grounding in time, geography, culture, or circumstance. At the end of the day, the failure to fully acknowledge irreducible human differences within humanity, not least, of course, the particularities of race and gender and the histories that encumbered them, rendered the discourse of man mostly vacuous.
The humanism based upon this abstracted anthropology was inherently problematic. It sought to be inclusive, but without recognizing those who had been excluded. Nor did it provide any practical way of addressing the ongoing contradictions of exclusion. The message was clear: African Americans, and other minorities too, still didn’t quite matter to the unfolding story of America exceptionalism and, in that particular moment, of America’s rising prosperity and growing global prominence. To a great many at midcentury, being black was still not quite being American; being a woman was not quite being a full citizen.
Yet while the “working through” of America’s hybrid Enlightenment in this midcentury humanism might have seemed a failure, the true impact was more paradoxical. Its virtue was that, as in the past, the language and vision of this discourse were diffuse enough for different communities and factions to read themselves and their own traditions and interests into it. Yes, it failed in its time to address the concrete realities of race and gender, but it succeeded by providing a cultural logic for successive waves of liberationist movements to come. Yes, the cultural logic of inclusion based on the universality of the “family of man” was mostly passive and empty, yet the appeal to this common anthropology became the foundation upon which concrete claims to equality could be made. The humanism of mid-twentieth-century America didn’t seek to acknowledge the rights of full citizenship of all groups, much less attempt to extend such rights to those that were excluded. But, in the end and on its own terms, proponents of midcentury humanism were hard pressed to deny those who were appealing for inclusion.
That appeal was first and most powerfully articulated in word and deed in the civil rights movement led, not incidentally, by the black clergy. This movement represented the continuation of the struggle to work through the ongoing and tragic contradictions of racial exclusion and injustice, and it found its most compelling voice in a theologian and churchman, Martin Luther King Jr.