Contents Past Issues About Us Search
Email this page to a friend
  The artist Yaroslava Mills photographed her husband,
C. Wright Mills, as he rode his BMW in 1958.
Free Radical

By David Brown

Radical Ambition: C. Wright Mills, the Left, and American Social Thought
By Daniel Geary
(University of California Press, 277 pages, $29.95)

The Columbia sociologist C. Wright Mills (1916–1962) is remembered today as one of postwar America’s most controversial thinkers. A Texas-born intellectual, author of the classic study The Power Elite (1956), and a left-leaning critic of Cold War liberalism, his politics were unapologetically oppositional. Informed by an older but still resonant farmer and labor radicalism, they displayed clear progressive and socialistic sympathies sometimes mistaken for Marxism. But Mills was no dialectical materialist. He produced, rather, popular scholarship that above all offered the average American a glimpse into the vast apparatus of interlocking power structures that comprised what President Dwight D. Eisenhower later called the “military-industrial complex.”

Mills arrived at Morningside Heights in 1945 as a research associate at Columbia University’s Bureau for Applied Social Research (BASR), which was led by Paul F. Lazarsfeld. The bureau was a leader in the emerging field of survey research and Mills quite rightly regarded his appointment as “a hell of a big break for a kid 28 years old.” Eventually he moved to the sociology department, where he became a full professor in 1956. Among the cluster of public intellectuals who distinguished Columbia during this era — including Richard Hofstadter, Lionel Trilling, and Jacques Barzun — Mills remains a compelling figure whose scholarship continues to challenge our notions of what it means to live in a democracy that comfortably houses a power elite.

Over the past few years, scholarly interest in Mills has picked up. C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings (with an introduction by Mills’s student Dan Wakefield ’55CC) appeared in 2000, and late last year came The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills, edited by John H. Summers. Now we have Daniel Geary’s Radical Ambition: C. Wright Mills, the Left, and American Social Thought. According to Geary, Mills’s controversial writings and rebel reputation have obscured his close connections to the intellectual currents that shaped the social sciences in the 1930s and ’40s. The leftist seer on motorcycle, the Texas rustic who urged his East Coast colleagues to drop the academic jargon and “take it big, boy!” and the scourge of Wall Street and the Pentagon, Mills has become a transcendent figure in pop intellectual iconography.

Geary isn’t buying the hype. “The origins of his thought,” he writes, “lie not in an early involvement in literary, bohemian, political, or journalistic circles, but in a university education in the social sciences.” True. As an undergraduate at the University of Texas, Mills was weaned on pragmatism and Chicago School sociology — intellectual traditions that emphasized flexible and variegated approaches to understanding the world. Pursuing a PhD at the University of Wisconsin, he gravitated to Hans Gerth, a German émigré, Weber specialist, and student of Karl Mannheim, one of the century’s major social theorists. In Madison, Mills absorbed Mannheim’s emphasis on the connection between ideology and environment. And this in turn reinforced his emerging understanding of knowledge as an instrument of practical possibilities affected by class, education, and status. His biting critique of postwar social science’s grand theory fetish for universal laws, in other words, had its roots in an older classical sociological lineage.

Like many intellectuals who came of age during the Depression, Mills hoped that America would advance beyond the competitive capitalism implicated in the crash of 1929. But to his disappointment, the new politics appeared more tepid than transformative. Despite its social welfare advances, Keynesian economics substantially sustained the free-market system while liberalism’s do-or-die pledge to contain Soviet power contributed to the militarization of American society. In response, Mills posited what he called the “politics of truth,” shorthand for a searching and critical reexamination of the nation’s values, commitments, and goals. Notwithstanding the suggestive optimism in the phrase, it translated into a frankly dystopian vision of the Modern Age. In a series of important books on contemporary America — The New Men of Power (1948), White Collar (1951), and the aforementioned The Power Elite — Mills maintained that the imperatives of the U.S. consumer-based economy combined with imperial ambitions to constrict freedom of thought and action.

Such a gloomy conclusion was heresy in an academy that rallied around the midcentury claim of Mills’s Columbia colleague Daniel Bell ’60GSAS that, with fascism defeated and communism contained, the West had reached a benign “end of ideology.” Mills dismissed such thinking as sociology for the status quo, for it left precious little intellectual space to construct fresh centers of cultural resistance. Breaking from the guild, he ceased to write within the professional mainstream. Instead, his essays were coveted by such popular periodicals as Harper’s and the Saturday Review of Literature. (The London Tribune celebrated Mills as “the true voice of American radicalism.”) Read against the backdrop of the broader cultural zeitgeist, his books were distant but discernible cousins to The Catcher in the Rye and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.

C. Wright Mills as photographed at a roadside diner by Yaroslava Mills. This is one of hundreds of previously unknown pictures of the sociologist recently discovered by his son, Nik Mills.

Mills’s independence from the academy raises the question of how far Geary’s thesis holds up. He asserts that “a full understanding of [Mills’s] ideas and their historical significance has been obscured by a captivating caricature of him as . . . a lone dissident.” But with the possible exception of the doctorate-less David Riesman, author of the hugely successful The Lonely Crowd (1950), no other generational peer sociologist wrote as critically or as acutely about the dangers of economic and political power as Mills. Whether he was cultivated or not, a strong streak of occupational alienation and defiance underscored much of his work. As Geary himself notes, Mills’s 1952 refusal to continue working on a long-standing BASR project tracking the flow of influence and information in Decatur, Illinois, “marked [his] definitive break with academic sociology as a whole.” A number of factors influenced Mills’s decision, including his colleagues’ refusal to accept what he considered the clear political meaning of the study, namely, that Decatur, and by implication America, was a status-driven, elite-centered society.

In regard to Mills’s personal life, all but absent in Radical Ambition, one wonders about the possible connections between his private and professional interests. Married four times to three women, a devotee of organic farming, and a skilled craftsman who built his own house, he approached his life as an ongoing creative process, not to be constricted by convention. Importantly, he pursued scholarship with a similar intentional élan atypical in a peer-review profession. How much of this “man apart” persona was calculated by Mills to accentuate his distance from the ivory tower is debatable. More certain is that some assessment of his regional background seems in order. Born in the South and educated in the Midwest, he stood conspicuously outside the academy’s coastal centers of power. To what extent, in other words, did place shape his politics?

Radical Ambition is on surer footing assessing its protagonist’s scholarship. The book hews to a logical chronology, moving from Mills’s education, early professional years, and major studies to his late-in-the-day turn as a transitional intellectual connecting the Old Left and the New Left. It is in this last section that Geary is most original and most interesting. He persuasively situates Mills within a rich context of circa 1960 transatlantic radicalism commonly critical of both Western capitalism and Eastern communism. This relationship proved imperfect. Mills’s pessimistic assessment of labor’s ability to effect systemic structural change bothered British thinkers like historian E. P. Thompson, who rejected the implied alternative assumption that elite minds — the thinking class — could best advance the interests of the working class. Weren’t the eggheads just another presumptive power elite?

By this time, Mills had traded professorial reflection for a new persona: the sociologist as action intellectual. In this final phase, he rapidly produced three polemics — The Causes of World War Three (1958), Listen, Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba (1960), and the posthumously published The Marxists (1962) — books unabashedly designed to reach a popular international readership struggling to make sense of the nuclear brinksmanship and neoimperialism of the times. Having given up on labor’s potential to tame capitalism, and skeptical of the New Left’s power to reform America, Mills looked with optimism to Castro’s Cuba as a Latin “third camp” in a bipolar world. In an emotionally charged essay in the December 1960 Harper’s, he made the case for the Cuban Revolution — curiously writing as a Cuban revolutionary. Referring to “we Cubans,” Mills welcomed the end of American influence in Havana: “Well, that’s over, Yankee, we’ve made laws and we’re sticking to them, with guns in our hands. Our sisters are not going to be whores for Yankees any more.” The possibilities of Latin American revolutions proved to be Mills’s final political investment; he died less than a year after the invasion of the Bay of Pigs.

Much like John Kennedy, his bête noir in the Cuba drama, Mills’s reputation benefited from an early exit. The welter of issues that consumed the 1960s but had clear roots in the ’40s and ’50s — race, gender, and the counterculture — were never a part of his oeuvre. When searching fruitlessly for democratic structures of oppositional power, he inexplicably overlooked the civil rights movement, perhaps the single most successful popular source of oppositional power in the American Century. It simply wasn’t on his radar. Gone at 45, he left behind a parcel of provocative books and a contested legacy, which we continue to wrestle with today. Perhaps Geary is right, and that what we need to know about Mills is how his rebel critic reputation has obscured his connections with a broader postwar left. But this tells only part of the story. As interesting is the incredible resiliency of the Mills Myth. For this says as much about Mills’s radical ambition as it does about our contemporary need to believe that it is possible to create a civic culture that is fundamentally open, just, and democratic — to believe, that is, in the “politics of truth.”

David Brown teaches history at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. He is the author of
Beyond the Frontier: The Midwestern Voice in American Historical Writing and Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography.


  Brain Trust

By Stephen S. Hall

How We Decide
By Jonah Lehrer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 302 pages, $25)

Early on in his new book How We Decide, science writer Jonah Lehrer ’03CC describes the fascinating downfall of a woman named Ann Klinestiver. Raised as a devout Christian, the 52-year-old high- school English teacher was the very model of small-town propriety in her West Virginia community and an object of empathetic admiration as she battled the tremors of Parkinson’s disease. And then, as Lehrer recounts, she began to act very strangely. She started hanging out at casinos and dog-racing tracks, compulsively playing the slot machines. After a year of gambling binges, she’d blown through more than $250,000 of retirement savings, lost her husband, and even resorted to stealing small change from her grandchildren. As in most neuroscience whodunits, her neurons made her do it — specifically, her dopamine-producing neurons.

It turns out that Klinestiver’s abrupt change in behavior, and her disastrous run of poor judgment, were side effects of the medication she had been taking in ever-greater doses to treat her Parkinson’s
disease. As Lehrer nimbly explains, Parkinson’s disease arises because of the mysterious degradation of a specific group of neurons nestled deep in the midbrain that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine. As these cells gradually disappear, and the amount of natural dopamine diminishes, the symptoms of Parkinson’s become more pronounced. Hence, a standard treatment for patients like Klinestiver is to replenish, often dramatically, levels of dopamine in the brain.

Now it also turns out that dopamine is the crucial ingredient in our neural apparatus for automatic (or, to use substitutive terms, instinctual or intuitional) decision making. Dopaminergic neurons keep track of what emotionally satisfies our desires and urges; dopamine is the juice that reinforces rewarding behavior when we make a satisfying decision, especially when we gratify primal physiological urges like hunger, thirst, and sex. In fact, it is so crucial to learning in primates like us that, as Lehrer puts it, “the process of decision-making begins with fluctuations of dopamine.” These neurons unconsciously guide much of our emotional behavior. But, as Lehrer explains in one of the best sections of his book, it gets even more interesting than that.

Once we discover something that pleases us, dopamine neurons begin to fire in anticipation of satisfactions; they predict reward before a decision is made, and they freak out when the prediction turns out to be wrong. In the neural shorthand of the dopamine system, success and habit breed boredom and low-grade contentment; errors and false predictions breed alarm and learning, and, most important in the context of slot machines, unexpected and pleasant surprises (ka-ching!) provoke the strongest dopamine-driven satisfactions. We literally get a neural kick when we learn something new, and unexpected pleasures are, thanks to dopamine, the most pleasant of all. Thus, a brain doused with dopamine can create powerful addictions that alter behavior. In addition to gambling, Parkinson’s patients treated with dopamine also have reported stunningly atypical sexual addiction and promiscuity.

In his skillful explication of the dopamine system, Lehrer correctly builds the structure of his book around one of the most important developments in neuroscience of the past two decades; human emotions, he writes, “are rooted in the prediction of highly flexible brain cells, which are constantly adjusting their connections to reflect reality.” Dopamine explains learning, habit, impulse, subconscious information appraisal, intuition, and a number of other decision-making processes based on emotion, all of which How We Decide successfully reprises. Indeed, Lehrer displays a prodigious knowledge of the current literature on decision science, and dips adroitly into these recent findings with concision and wit.

But this is also a book largely built out of two kinds of anecdote. Some, like the Klinestiver story, emerge directly out of neuroscience, reflect Lehrer’s own reporting, and succeed marvelously at conveying the science. But these are rivaled, and often overshadowed, by a separate class of anecdote that seems, though beautifully rendered, exaggerated and somewhat removed from everyday experience. “From the perspective of the brain,” Lehrer writes, “there’s a thin line between a good decision and a bad decision . . . This book is about that line.” That line, alas, is often drawn with melodramatic flair — and a very heavy marker. About halfway through the book, you begin to wonder if a more appropriate title might have been Extreme Neuroscience.

To illustrate decision-making processes like focus or intuition, Lehrer tells stories about a Super Bowl quarterback making a crucial pass in the waning minutes of the game and an airline pilot landing a crippled plane. The story of a Montana forest fire that swallows up more than a dozen young firefighters is a parable of panic and habit, and the tale of serial killer John Wayne Gacy is used to explain moral decisions. Each of these anecdotes is deftly told (perhaps too deftly; we’ll get to that in a moment), but they also strive so hard for drama and attention that they seem to be bulked-up examples of decision making — anecdotes on steroids, if you will. They represent extreme, split-second examples of expert decision making that often don’t resonate with the more mundane, protracted, agonizing back-and-forth uncertainty many of us wrestle with on a daily basis, without a single Super Bowl ring to show for our efforts.

In recasting the timeless battle between the emotional and cognitive voices of the human mind, Lehrer is captive, as we all are, to the original Platonic metaphor for rational thought: reason is the charioteer, struggling to control and steer the horses of emotion, which is wild, impulsive, and has a mind of its own. Metaphors for emotional impulse run the zoological gamut, from the horse to the grasshopper (Aesop), or the elephant (recently suggested by psychologist Jonathan Haidt), as everyone works out neural mechanics of communication and control between the rider (the prefrontal, rational part of our brain) and the beast (our dopamine-trained, emotional decision makers). In truth, these two ostensibly separate neural duchies are so snarled and entangled with interconnected wiring that they look like the back of your home entertainment system. They talk back to each other, they contradict each other, they take turns vetoing each other. The big message from recent neuroscience, reiterated in the book, is about the decision-making power and acumen of the emotional brain. “The reason these emotions are so intelligent,” Lehrer writes, hearkening back to the dopamine system, “is that they’ve managed to turn mistakes into learning events.”

Several caveats: Despite Lehrer’s agile handling of a lot of complicated material, I never was quite sure about the line that separated his reporting from other people’s work. Lehrer’s account of the disastrous 1949 firefighting episode in Montana, for example, with which he began his July 2008 story about insight in the New Yorker, apparently represents no original reporting, but instead is an elaborate four-page retelling of Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire (1992). Lehrer mentions the Maclean book in the main text, yet oddly doesn’t attribute his very detailed account to it. This and other derivative anecdotes are written with such immediacy and visceral detail that it is the kind of prose we normally associate with eyewitness reporting or fastidious, scrupulously sourced reconstruction. At minimum, it would have been gracious to acknowledge Maclean explicitly in the text as the main source of Lehrer’s extended, vivid account.

One final but important quibble: How We Decide makes the story of decision science sound more settled than it sometimes is. The findings of a recent experiment on patience and self-control, for example, read like neural law; in reality, the results have been sharply contested in the literature. Readers of How We Decide will come away with a swift, smart, and genial survey of the recent research on how we make decisions — including, especially, the decisions we inevitably screw up. They shouldn’t, however, come away with the sense that the hash of decision-making science is settled. To the contrary, it’s just beginning to get fractiously interesting.

Stephen S. Hall is an adjunct professor in the Graduate School of Journalism. His sixth book, Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience, will be published by Knopf in the spring of 2010.

Leonard Bernstein conducts contralto Marian Anderson and the New York Philharmonic during a 1947 rehearsal at Lewisohn Stadium.
He Gets Carried Away

Leonard Bernstein, American Original: How a Modern Renaissance Man Transformed Music and the World During His New York Philharmonic Years, 1943–1976
By Burton Bernstein ’54JRN and Barbara B. Haws (Collins, 223 pages, $29.95)

If Leonard Bernstein had stayed in his native Massachusetts, or if he had been born a generation earlier, would he have become the Leonard Bernstein? Probably not. It’s hard to picture this musical, political, and social Dionysus confining himself to 1950s Back Bay and Cambridge. Or Philadelphia, Chicago, or Paris, for that matter. No, it had to be New York after the war. Lenny, Manhattan, Broadway, and the New York Philharmonic fell in love and danced into one another’s arms, while FM radio, stereo LPs, and television allowed the rest of us in on the party. Bernstein, a con brio hurricane, had to blow in when and where he did.

That’s one motif of Leonard Bernstein, American Original, a book of essays and photographs celebrating the man who embodied the joy of music for millions.

In one of history’s most improbable debuts, Bernstein — American, Jewish, 25 years old — was called to Carnegie Hall on November 14, 1943, to pinch-hit for conductor Bruno Walter, who was in bed with the flu. Bernstein had been appointed an assistant conductor of the Philharmonic only two months before, and this concert was to be broadcast nationally and to the armed forces overseas. “He acknowledged the doubtful but polite applause,” writes Burton Bernstein ’54JRN, the composer’s younger brother and a former New Yorker staffer, “and proceeded to conduct one hell of a concert — a succès fou that nudged some war news off the front pages the next day.”

Bernstein was regularly on the front pages from that night until his death in 1990. We know the basics: On the Town, Wonderful Town, Candide, West Side Story, the score for On the Waterfront, the symphonies and songs, and his Mass. We remember his years as music director and music director laureate of the Philharmonic, his concerts in Vienna and operas at La Scala, his broadcasts of Young People’s Concerts, his balletic conducting technique, the parties, and the sometimes eyebrow-raising political activism.

Burton Bernstein and Barbara B. Haws, the Philharmonic’s archivist, have compiled a Festschrift that illuminates new facets of a much-analyzed career, though the chapters are so varied in tone and subject that they don’t seem to belong in the same book. (Burton contributes two essays and several “a brother’s recollection” sidebars.)

The most illuminating essay is by John Adams, the composer of the operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer. Adams presents a clear rundown of Bernstein’s strengths and weaknesses as a composer, of his taste in programming as a music director, and of his unequaled role as a teacher and an “American cultural icon.”

“I recall in sharp clarity an afternoon broadcast of a piece called ‘The Right of Spring,’ or so I thought was the title,” writes Adams of a preteen epiphany shared by thousands. “The broadcast included Bernstein speaking to the audience before conducting the music. That was a shock, because classical music up to this point had been the province of mysterious, remote foreign-born ‘maestros.’” Adams equally found it a delight “to turn on the radio and hear the voice of an American speaking in the common vernacular, but with vivid images of the music of . . . Igor Stravinsky and Charles Ives. And then I saw on a magazine cover the face that went with this charming voice — Bernstein’s face — and I thought ‘this guy looks more like James Dean than he looks like Toscanini.’”

The telegenic face and dynamic delivery were part of the story, as was Bernstein’s involvement in a checklist of liberal causes — nuclear disarmament, the anti–Vietnam War movement, the environment, civil rights. Critics who charged him with naïveté in his politics were not far off the mark, as when in 1970 he and his wife hosted members of the Black Panthers in their Park Avenue home for a legal-defense fundraiser. Tom Wolfe skewered the Bernsteins in his New York magazine article called “Radical Chic.”

As the mostly admiring Burton Bernstein writes, “I simply couldn’t believe it. Lenny was still naïve about the press, even after decades of harsh lessons. . . . How could [he and his wife] be so monumentally dumb?”

Dumb strategically, perhaps; but the book leaves little doubt about Bernstein’s sincerity — even in what some saw as his musical exaggerations, his antics on the podium, and his pie-in-the-sky politics.

Perhaps, like Ozzie and Claire in On the Town, he just got carried away.

Submit a letter to the editor // Email this page to a friend