April 13, 2006
ONE TRIES TO AVOID ENJOYING THE EPONYM (via Ed Driscoll):
The rancid radicalism of William Sloane Coffin (Roger Kimball, 4/13/06, Armavirumque)
News that the Rev. William Sloane Coffin died on April 12 at the age of 81 was met, as befits that icon of left-liberal sentimentality and self-righteousness, by an outpouring of liberal piety. Coffin's heyday was in the 1970s, when from his perch as chaplain at Yale, he helped transform the university into an ideological battleground. Although you won't hear it from the arbiters of bien pensant opinion, Coffin was almost entirely a malevolent influence, fond of telling his flock such things as "We must recognize that justice is a higher social goal than law and order." Like other gurus of the period such as Herbert Marcuse, he pretended that American society was an oppressive battleground which could only be combatted by "civil disobedience" (the phrase supplied the title for one of Coffins book) or even "revolutionary" activity. But as the legal scholar Alexander Bickel noted in 1970 (he was writing about Coffin and his colleagues), "to be a revolutionary in a society like ours, is to be a totalitarian, or not to know what one is doing."
Coffin's career illustrated one of the most profound effects of the long march of America's cultural revolution: to institutionalize the assumption of institutional illegitimacy. It was less a matter of cynicism than a rejection of established authority: as if the very fact of being established undermined the legitimacy of an idea or institution.
There are many facets to this phenomenon. One of the most curious concerns the role of certain religious figures who, in the mid-Sixties and early Seventies, brandished the phrase "civil disobedience" as a patent of moral rectitude and a license for lawlessness.
It was sanctioned by the civil rights movement, when various religious leaders participated in marches and demonstrations to end racial segregation. The nobility of that cause imbued the idea of civil disobedience with an aura of supreme moral urgency. Whether, even then, civil disobedience--i.e., illegal though (generally) nonviolent agitation--was justified was a question that could hardly be raised. The rightness of the cause made this question seem impertinent at best. Besides, there was the warm glow of self-satisfaction that attended participation in such activities. Increasingly, "civil disobedience" came to imply, at least to its advocates, obedience to a higher authority--the authority of one's conscience, first of all, but construed in such a way as to suggest the gratifying thought that the dictates of one's conscience were indistinguishable from the dictates of justice itself.
Those addicted to the pleasurable feeling of moral superiority found it an irresistible brew. By the time that Vietnam became an issue, civil disobedience had established itself as a prescription for moral intoxication, not to say anesthesia. Sanctioning illegality as an expression of higher virtue, the ethic of civil disobedience promised to transport its partisans to the ranks of a moral elect even as it undermined the authority of the law and its supporting institutions and beliefs. Never mind the contradictions that this situation bred: opportunities for moral megalomania were too precious to squander. Among the many individuals responsible for proselytizing the ethic of civil disobedience as a form of higher virtuousness William Sloane Coffin, Jr. (along with the unspeakable Berrigan brothers) became synonymous with the antinomian uproar of Sixties radicalism.
Wrapping himself in the mantle of a religious authority that, in one way or another, he repudiated by his actions, Coffin made an enormous effort to legitimize the politics of delegitimation. Although they all seem like museum pieces today, in the late Sixties and early Seventies they epitomized one prominent side of America's cultural revolution. Members of the establishment, they nevertheless embraced a political program dedicated to the destruction of the establishment. [...]
When the Vietnam War got going, it demanded that he aid and abet young men in burning their draft cards, that he participate in marches on the Pentagon, and that he travel to Hanoi courtesy of the North Vietnamese government (where he promptly discovered "a very special feeling for the North Vietnamese, a feeling I attributed to the fact that we were friends because we had deliberately refused to become enemies").
In 1970, when Bobby Seale and eight other Black Panthers were on trial for murder in New Haven and it looked for a moment as if New Haven would erupt in a riot, justice demanded that William Sloane Coffin publicly declare in a sermon that the Panthers should go free because their trial was "legally right but morally wrong."
Don't you envy those who weren't subjected to the '70s? Posted by Orrin Judd at April 13, 2006 1:39 PM