April 13, 2006


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

While we'll all have a lot of explaining to do when we're called before the ultimate bar of justice, one suspects that folks such as Mr. Coffin will be more surprised at the accounting than others.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at April 13, 2006 2:00 PM

As one who had the 1970's inflicted on him as a child (age 4 to age 13), I have to agree emphatically with you, Mr. Judd.

Posted by: Mikey at April 13, 2006 2:29 PM

i for one refuse to condemn the 70's.

Posted by: toe at April 13, 2006 2:43 PM

I thank God every day I avoided that decade. I welcome your envy.

Posted by: Timothy at April 13, 2006 2:50 PM

I once sublet an apartment from the late Daniel Berrigan, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. he was a vague, strange man, whose primary concern seemed to be the preservation of his rent-controlled lease in the middle of prime Manhattan real estate.

Posted by: lisa at April 13, 2006 3:04 PM

I second that Timothy

Posted by: Shelton at April 13, 2006 3:19 PM

The left liked organizied religion a lot better back in those days, when folks like Coffin and the Berrigan brothers were more interested in taking down U.S. society than annoying things like protesting abortion or championing human rights in captive Soviet block and Third World dictatorships. Liberation theology just ain't what it used to be...

Posted by: John at April 13, 2006 3:34 PM

Wasn't there something known as the misery index or something like that? I think I heard about that once.

Posted by: andrew at April 13, 2006 4:17 PM

Two words sums up the awfulness of the 1970's: roller disco.

Posted by: Mikey at April 13, 2006 4:34 PM

Sat next to Coffin in a Barber chair in New Haven, just off campus, not far from my office. The barber introduced us; Coffin's repartee with the barbers was pleasant and humorous, the kind of guy you'd like to have a drink with. A typical trust baby. Reading of his activities on campus it was hard to think of him as a chaplain. A Chaplin maybe, but not otherwise. His departure may be regarded as his one gift to the nation.

Posted by: Genecis at April 13, 2006 4:45 PM

"Don't you envy those who weren't subjected to the '70s?"

Between bell-bottoms, enviromentalism, tie-dyed peace symbol waving war protestors, John Kerry, and Hollywood's current product, there are lots of people who've never left the seventies. Moden liberalism itself seems permanently mired there.

Posted by: Ed Driscoll at April 13, 2006 5:01 PM

We have come so far from the days of shame of the '70's, when cowardice was the handmaiden of treason.

Posted by: Lou Gots at April 13, 2006 5:09 PM

Pining for Coffin, eh?

Posted by: ghostcat at April 13, 2006 5:24 PM

My husband was among Yale administrators who walked the roofs quite a few nights during the this period to watch for signs of a firestorm.

It was a very scary period and I wouldn't want to live through any of it again. Few people realize how close we were to anarchy and takeover by an earlier crop of ANSWER folk.

Posted by: erp at April 13, 2006 5:31 PM


Perhaps the risk was high at the elite universities, or even some state schools, but after Kent State, things quieted down pretty quick.

The riots of '67 and '68 were scary, but flyover country wasn't in trouble. Of course, the whole Vietnam experience deranged an entire generation of "rural" Democrats like George McGovern, Dick Clark, Frank Church, etc.

Posted by: jim hamlen at April 13, 2006 6:54 PM


Ditto maximus. Missed the 70s? We are the lucky ones.

Generally speaking, things have only been getting better ever since I was born. I'm sure this has something to do with my presence on the planet, although I'm unsure of the mechanism.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at April 13, 2006 8:00 PM


...although I'm unsure of the mechanism.

Random mutation?

Posted by: Peter B at April 13, 2006 8:08 PM

It took my brother and I until our late 30's to realize that we had actually come of age in the decade that was "The Hangover of the 60's."

We both feel that it ruined us. We nevertheless have emerged with identical Top Three Things to Be Thankful to God For lists:

1) Being born to Mom and Dad
2) Being born into the Church
3) Being born in The United States of America

Yes, this bonanza of blessings is maculated by having been raised in the 70s (ages 8-18). But compared to coming of age in Saudi Arabia or France in any decade ... (and I'd give you a two-way time machine and still win.)

PS - there is one way to cheer up a bit about coming of age in the 70s: The Clash and The Ramones. It almost makes up for it.

Posted by: Steve at April 13, 2006 8:53 PM

When Glenn Reynolds pines for a time when we'll live forever, it just makes me think of all the people who won't be dying were that to happen. Do we really want the generations that gave up the 60's and 70's to remain with humanity forever?

Posted by: RC at April 14, 2006 3:50 AM

All the boomers need to be dead or in nursing homes before history can begin again. I wish I could be around to see how the younger generations manage because I think we'd all be very proud of them. One thing's sure, socialism in all its manifestations will be buried with a stake driven through its heart.

Posted by: erp at April 14, 2006 10:04 AM

Yeah, the 60's and 70's weren't pretty, except as in pretty scary. Hope y'all do so much better than we did. I'm sure things will be much better when that Boomer Scum Bush is gone from the scene. Don't mean to be too sarcastic. Things do appear to be trending better, but sometimes the bashing gets a little too facile.


Posted by: jdkelly at April 14, 2006 6:54 PM