The student movements trained an entire generation of intellectuals to feel instead of think

Sunday, July 28th, 2019

T. Greer has a second, more tentative hypothesis for why post-1960s strategic theorists seem far less brilliant than those who came before:

The very first wave of thinkers in the American age (who by and large were educated before its birth) were brilliant people. If Thomas Schelling and Herbert Simon are not included in St. John’s reading list by 2050, the list will not be worth much. The strategic practitioners of this time were also very sharp people. But things quickly were muddled up. The clearest break between the crisp thinking of the older Americans and the addled thought that came after them is marked quite clearly in Freeman’s second section, when he transitions from a discussion of the strategic theory behind the American Civil Rights movement to the theory behind the SDS and the Port Huron manifesto.

My low estimation of the SDS’s strategic acumen is shared by Freedman himself. To quote:

The new radicals were more in a libertarian, anarchist, anti-elitist tradition, desperate for authenticity even at the expense of lucidity… Instead of the rigorous analysis of classic texts, the new radicals were suspicious of theory. Political acts had to be genuine expressions of values and sentiments. Convictions took priority over the calculation of consequences, reflecting a wariness of expediency and a refusal to compromise for the sake of political effects. At times it seemed as if deliberate and systematic thought was suspect and only a spontaneous stream of consciousness, however inarticulate and unintelligible, could be trusted. Todd Gitlin, an early activist and later analyst of the New Left, observed how actions were undertaken to “dramatize” convictions. They were “judged according to how they made the participants feel,” as if they were drugs offering highs and lows. If it was the immediate experience which counted for most, then there was little scope for thinking about the long term.

I do not think American intellectual thought has ever really recovered from this. The SDS and the constellation of social movements that it was a part of created the “New Left.” These students, and those they influenced, would go on to take control of university departments, editorial chairs, and other positions in the ‘commanding heights of American culture. Though most are now passing from the scene, the American imagination still refracts politics through the cultural lens these boomer rebels created. Most of the intellectual sloppiness that you find in modern activism comes from this source (not from Foucault et. al., who was brighter than conservatives give him credit for, and has largely been appropriated as intellectual cover for shoddy thinking that had been entrenched before Foucault was published in English).

The student movements trained an entire generation of intellectuals to feel instead of think. It also taught them to reject all that came before, cutting themselves off from the smartest thinking of the preceding two centuries. It was our misfortune that this happened just as the American intellectual scene was shrinking away from the rest of of the world. The free-wheeling, transnational debates of the 19th and early 20th century could not be repeated in the frozen Cold War world.

I pity the American public intellectual. Rejecting the rigor of the past, isolated from intellectual currents of non-Anglophone society, and planted in an environment where feelings trumped thought, it is a marvel that any of the lot has added to our understanding of strategy at all.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    The worst kind of stupidity is being stupid on purpose. In Return of the Primitive, Rand implied that the kids involved were somehow defective, but didn’t explain why. In The Boomer Bible, Laird says they chose not to really think about anything at all, and the rest followed.

    You can’t fix stupid people. You can only work around them, and plot to undermine their positions.

  2. Kirk says:

    I’m not so sure how I feel about this line of thought, to be honest.

    Aside from Sun Tzu, Musashi, and a few others that have stood the test of time, very little of what I’ve read in this area over the years makes much damn sense, in practical terms. So, that there was all this sudden decay in everything…? Not to my mind; all of it was always equally “decayed”.

    Part of the problem is that the issues of one era do not translate well to the solutions of another; try to read into Ardant du Picq, where he addresses the concerns of the Napoleonic War-era mindset he was immersed in, and then apply it to a generation later, when it was industrial-scale slaughter on a continental scale…? Doesn’t work out so well; there is a bunch of interesting stuff in his work, some of which applies, but… It all becomes irrelevant, in the face of artillery barrages that can last for weeks, and enough firepower to change landscapes.

    There’s a bunch of stuff in modern strategic writing that makes sense, but… Overall? I’ve been through the literature developed since around 2000, and I’ve got to be honest with you: I don’t see much that’s of any real use, or utility.

    It’s like with tactics; you go looking for a clearly thought-out summation of how things are going to work, and what you’re going to find is mostly a confusing mish-mash of “good advice”, and very little real substance. Similarly, you want to understand how the various weapons systems are supposed to work together down at the lowest levels, and what you find is a welter of things that were never clearly thought out, that people can’t quite even discuss, because the terminology and the ideas aren’t clearly and cogently laid out for the student of tactics.

    TBH, I strongly suspect that if you were to take one of the elite German elements from WWII, and put them up against a modern element of your choice, the modern guys are going to get badly chewed up unless all the recent innovations are enabled. I got to talk to a German veteran, once, who had been through the mill as an enlisted guy early in the war, made it to junior NCO level, got wounded, selected for officer training, and who was a company commander by the end of the war. Ask him how things were supposed to work, in terms of the rifles, MG teams, mortars, and all the rest he had to play with as a commander? He could lay it out and explain everything from a clear theoretical and practical experience.

    Do that with a modern US Army officer, of similar background? LOL… Good ‘effing luck; a lot of them don’t even have the tools to think in those terms, and lack the necessary mindset to even understand why such thinking is critical. They’re more worried about the next step on their career ladder, and speculating whether they ought to become an “Area Officer”, or what else they might do which is “career enhancing”.

    Allied officers aren’t much better, that I’ve seen. There seems to have been a drastic drop-off in the level of thinking going into low-level tactics and operations, and that shows.

    To a degree, I blame the US Army mentality that focuses on “Big Picture” things. Instead of deep thoughts about the nuts and bolts issues, what we get are airy castles in the sky built on a foundation of sand and vapors…

  3. David Foster says:

    “To a degree, I blame the US Army mentality that focuses on “Big Picture” things. Instead of deep thoughts about the nuts and bolts issues, what we get are airy castles in the sky built on a foundation of sand and vapors…”

    There is a fair amount of that in business as well. The feed on LinkedIn is full of posts from people…I’m talking about business professionals, managers, executives, and entrepreneurs…writing posts that look like “social studies” and/or Eastern religions.

  4. Wang Wei Lin says:

    I perused the SDS manifesto. It is impossible to build a future with their mindset. Optimism with a historical perspective is essential for a thriving civil society. These self-righteous self-centered ideologues have only one purpose…to destroy anything that preceeded them while pretending it’s progress.

  5. Kirk says:

    David Foster,

    There’s a whole other issue with this stuff that could be gone into in lot more depth, and that issue is the question of just where in the hell all of this sort of problem originates. I’d point to a swathe of like issues across society, things that I’m not entirely certain of, but which “feel” as though they exist as issues.

    There’s a general lack of depth, to much of what is done these days. I can’t recall ever having gotten to the end of a textbook, in high school, or college. You go out to a jobsite, and look at a lot of work performed by the trades, and the general lack of craftsmanship and “craftsman-like care” demonstrated is mind-boggling. You look at some of the houses that we’ve built, and the interaction of design with material plus construction sometimes results in some really nasty failures, and those originate not in execution, but in design that doesn’t take into account all the variables of moisture flow and control, which are sourced in the architecture. What’s amazing is that everyone did everything “right”, in terms of what supposed “best practices” are for the various materials and designs used were, but the interaction of them all resulted in a black mold infestation that’s mind-boggling. Nobody’s fault, really, but… It’s just another example of the lack of understanding most people have, at all levels.

    Based on my reading of things, and the influence of my grandparents, I really expect better results than we’re getting, and I expect to be able to find deep resources describing how things work. But… I haven’t been able to. That systemic thing I refer to about a lot of modern military practice…? That’s simply a symptom of things that exist across society, and I’ll be damned if I know how this has come to be.

    You would think that by now, we’d have taken note of the difficulty in managing the complexity of things, and taken some steps to at least try to understand and systematize solving them in consistent ways, but… Holy crap. Nope.

    I mean, look at education: We’ve been teaching kids how to read, write, and do sums for how long now? And, we’re still prone to taking up these dysfunctional fads like “whole language”, rather than phonics… WTF? How is that possible? By this time, all of that ought to be systematized and standardized to the point where it’s virtually impossible to munge up, but we’re actually graduating kids today who are less literate than their great-grandparents who were taught using slates and McGuffey Readers.

    We’re doing something profoundly wrong, and I’ll be damned if I can define it. It is a collection of symptoms with no easily defined cause, but I’m virtually certain that this is all somehow connected…

  6. Ezra says:

    I would believe the leadership of the SDS was probably out-and-out communist. Red diaper doper babies. If they weren’t so they sure appeared to be.

  7. Unauthorized Thoughts says:

    Seems likely that this has something to do with the increasingly powerful role of women in our society, given that women on the average tend to emphasize emotion-driven thinking more than men do.

  8. Paul from Canada says:

    Something I’ve said before, a quote from Philip K. Dick, the author of the book that became Blade Runner.

    “Reality is that which continues to exist when you cease to believe in it.”

    Theory is fun, and I indulge in it at great length myself, but at the end of the day, theory gives in to reality.

  9. Kirk says:

    “Seems likely that this has something to do with the increasingly powerful role of women in our society, given that women on the average tend to emphasize emotion-driven thinking more than men do.”


    I’ve often said that you can trace a lot of the ills of our society back to when we extended suffrage to women.

    If you stop an analyze the arguments they used to get that done, there was precisely zero rationally thought out and discussed logical reasoning to any of it. The whole thing was based on emotion. And, the project promptly went off the rails here in the US, as women voters were a key reason that the whole Prohibition fiasco happened.

    Not every woman votes emotionally, and not every man votes rationally, but there are enough of each sort in the sexes to skew results massively.

    Overall, if I were asked to assess the whole “Women’s suffrage” experiment? I’d have to say it was a failure. Ask a selection of women why they vote for a particular candidate, and you’re going to hear things like “I like the way he looks…” and “I don’t like the way they talk, so I’m not voting for them…”. There will be precisely zero attention paid to whether or not that candidate has good policies or a good track record for successfully doing things; it’s all optics and emotion.

    Sometimes women’s intuition will tell them things that men miss, in this regard; other times? LOL. This is how we got JFK and FDR–Sheer emotionalism at the ballot box. Same-same with Clinton and Obama–They got all moist, ‘cos they saw their fantasy-boys up there talking, and instead of paying attention to policies, we got two terms of fraud and shenanigans.

    Which, incidentally, we’re still paying the price for. If the silly bints hadn’t have voted for Clinton, we’d never have had Hillary as SecState, and probably Obama would still be a relatively small-time grifter in Chicago. Ironically, the two of them have probably cemented the death of the Democratic Party, which is not a good thing, when you consider the RINO party without real competition to keep it even slightly honest…

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