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New York and the Nation

New Yorka and the Nation

In a larger sense, simply because of the time of their production and the goals of the Oral History Research Office in documenting, for the most part, the lives of public figures, these interviews are artifacts of the high point of American liberalism (broadly conceived), and in one way or another each of them speaks to the potentials and the contradictions of that cultural formation. Viewing them now from the perspective of a much more conservative age, one can see how they speak to us about the hegemony of American liberalism from the Progressive period through the years of the New Deal, the Second World War, the Cold War, and 1960s, to the Reagan "revolution."

The version of liberalism that emerges in the interviews is very broad in two senses. It encompasses more than simply electoral politics or either Democratic or Republican party affiliation. It is clear from these interviews, especially with Heiskell, Stanton, and Lasker, how thin the line was between liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans in New York, or conversely, as seen in the Foner interview, how blurred the line was between the liberal wing of the Democratic party and the radicalism of the Popular Front. What the interviews document is the consensus culture of liberalism in New York: an obvious belief in the central role of government in the solution of problems, most clearly articulated in the Perkins, Koch, Oakes, Lasker, and Clark interviews. But they also illustrate a firm commitment to a basic level of welfare that in time and with proper leadership would yield, if not a society of equals, a society of caring, a society that lived up to the implicit communitarian promise of the social-work ethos of the New Deal at its best. With careful reading, the reader will find that these assumptions inform the hidden discourse of all these narratives.

Looking at these testimonies from the point of view of the present, it is startling how secular they all are. If there is a religious vision at all, it is one of ethics rather than piety, works rather than faith, denominationalism rather than sectarianism, rationalism rather than intuition. They offer a vision of the world and the word that emphasized historical contingency and experimentation rather than fundamentalism. This view of the world was closely interwoven with the ideology of modernism, defined as the movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that typically embraced the multiplicity and ambiguity of perspectives in both scientific and cultural production, and took a relativistic view of social and other relations. This is most obvious in the Cerf and Lasker interviews, but also in Stanton's discussion of the building of the "Black Rock" headquarters of CBS; in Heiskell's memories of the photographers of Life magazine, which had perhaps one of the greatest collections of modernist artists ever assembled in one commercial enterprise; and in Foner's discussion of the Bread and Roses cultural programs, which clearly reflected the modernism of the Popular Front, as Michael Denning has argued, rather than any concept of socialist realism. Of course, in the interviews one will find very different views on the particularities of modernism. For instance, one can contrast the views on psychoanalysis held by Stanton and Lasker yet notice a shared aesthetic sensibility in their tastes for particular works of art.

Resonant with that modernism is the obvious internationalism reflected in these interviews. That internationalism varies from Lasker's descriptions of international society and approaches to medical research, to Heiskell's discussion of the attempts of Time, Inc., to expand internationally, to Cerf's view of modern literary culture, which formed the defining ethos of the Modern Library, to Foner's commitment to international brotherhood as a member of the Communist Party and later as an opponent of the war in Vietnam. It was an internationalism that sought not only to bring a larger perspective to the American public but, in many cases, also sought to expand American cultural influence throughout the world.

The broad consensus sketched here should not obscure some very real differences and contradictions. One of the real differences evident in the interviews is over the view of the role of industrial unions in the American political order and the power they should wield. Foner and Perkins held views at odds with those of Stanton and Heiskell, although in those few spots where unions are discussed, it is clear that neither Stanton nor Heiskell held views that would today be consistent with the antiunion sentiments that organized labor now faces. The deepening contradiction between postwar liberalism and the labor movement is one of the major points raised in the Koch interview in his discussion of the unionization of public employees, but his critique is a far cry from a call for the open shop. It is, however, useful to see the Perkins and Foner interviews in the context of the history of American unionism: Perkins tells the story of the rise of industrial unionization during the New Deal and Second World War and Foner takes that story through the postwar period, especially the civil-rights movement to the present. In each case the drive was to organize the unorganized; to Perkins these were the mostly male workers in basic manufacturing, and to Foner these were black and Hispanic women.

More to the point are the contradictions within American liberalism that are apparent in the interviews, the foremost being around race and racism. The first aspect, clearly delineated by the Clark interviews, was the failure of the United States to fulfill its Constitutional promises and its continuing racist public policy. A more complex question perhaps was about the meaning of equality and the form equality should take—the intellectual, sociological, and philosophical basis for that equality, and the opposition between integration and community self-determination. Were the experiences the African American community and other "racial" communities similar to those of other ethnic communities, therefore demanding public policies that were blind to differences, or were those experiences so unique that different policies were necessary? In the second Kenneth Clark interview, the second Koch interview, and the Foner interview, one can see that tension being played out in struggles over education, in the internal politics of the labor movement, and in a broad range of public policies. Similarly there is the contradiction around the role of public policy concerning women. The Perkins interview is a wonderful example of the contradictions revolving around issues of equality and sameness. In particular, as noted recently by Alice Kessler Harris, the commitment of the United States to its version of the welfare state, that rested on "the idea that some people (generally women) would get benefits by virtue of their family positions and others (generally men) would get benefits by virtue of their paid employment." Both these contradictions were an integral and complex part of the larger contradictions of class that were inherent in liberal ideology that limited the extent of equity possible in the face of the class divisions so deeply embedded in American culture.

A second contradiction surrounded anticommunism and the tension it created between a commitment to the Bill of Rights and the limitations on personal freedom imposed by Cold War politics. Again, there were primarily two subjects under discussion. The first, blacklisting, is clearly articulated in the Stanton and Foner interviews. On the one hand we have the testimony and the rueful afterthoughts of Stanton, who was charged with enforcing that policy at CBS, and on the other hand we have the story of the effects of such a policy on Foner and his brothers. The second debate over communism centers on the war in Vietnam. All of our post-seventies interviewees note their opposition to that war and the ways in which it called into question the international role of the nation. By the 1970s it was clear that the expansion of both the welfare state and the military state had reached a crisis point where it was no longer possible to afford both, as noted clearly by Lasker in her interview.

Third is the contradiction inherent in the modernist vision, which risks widening the gap between artistic or intellectual work and the concerns of the broader public. When do the search for unique perspectives and the idealization of the new result in a product that becomes inaccessible or irrelevant to the general public? This tension is evident in Heiskell's memories of the practices of Life photographers, in Cerf's comments on the inability of a mass audience to even begin to understand authors such as Joyce, and in Foner's attempt to resolve the tension within Bread and Roses between political commitment and high-quality performance. The problem was of course compounded by the growth of a mass media and a mass market. Despite attempts such as those of the editors of Time magazine to spread high culture to a wide middle-class audience—an example of what the critic Dwight MacDonald referred to as "Midcult"—or the initial attempts to use television to promote that culture through such programming as CBS's Omnibus, the cultural divide sharpened, especially in the 1960s. In the 1950s many scholars from the left, such as Paul Goodman and C. Wright Mills, offered a thorough critique of the elitism of the culture of liberalism, a critique that resounded with a certain ferocity in the 1960s. Ironically, it was the conservative critique based on what was seen as the backlash of middle America and a desire to return to fundamental values that presaged the death knell of the culture of liberalism, a critique, using the buzzword of "elitism," that has so informed the "cultural wars" of the present.

More than a cultural critique was involved, of course. Here all we can do is list a few of the factors that mark the end of one epoch and the onset of another. By the late 1970s it was clear that the federal government was no longer in a position nor was it willing to support further large-scale public programs such as public housing and expanded health care, let alone national health insurance. Disillusionment with the civil-rights and antiracist struggles of the 1960s had set in. Government was seen now as the problem not the solution. The New Deal coalition that had brought about the rise of modern liberalism was in tatters. Inflation and globalization were remaking the market. A new sense of crisis was emergent. The New York fiscal crisis demanded new ways of managing the city. If, as Heiskell found, the New York Public Library was to be saved, it must be done through private sources. The will to solve the problems of the social order, as Kenneth Clark notes, was no longer there.

If the Frances Perkins interview gives us a sense of the origins of modern American liberalism and the subtle transformation of the Progressive Movement into the New Deal, then the Koch interview catalogs the decline of that tradition. Whether one terms it "neo-liberalism" or "neo-conservatism" or, as Dianne Coffey calls it, "liberalism with sanity," the discussion in this last interview touches on almost every point of contestation that is part of our current political discourse.

There were also larger shifts in the culture that in a sense date some of these interviews. Network television with New York as its center is now but one part, and some would say an increasingly small part, of the communications options of millions of Americans. Its centrality is, for all intents and purposes, gone. So too with mass-circulation magazines and the media empires that produced them, and the role of hardback publishing and personally directed publishing firms.

None of this means that struggles over the definition of the culture and the city's role in forging that definition have ended. These interviews were all conducted with people who were not for the most part affected by the so-called new social movements. While the Oakes interview does indeed discuss his involvement in the environmental movement, and Kenneth Clark does talk about black liberation, there is almost nothing here, again with the exception of the Koch interview recorded in the 1990s, about the women's movement, the movement for gay liberation, and, to be expected, no mention of more recent debates over globalization.

The interviews presented here are thus documents of their time. The Oral History Research Office continues to build its collection, often moving in new directions, most notably in the various projects devoted to documenting the memory of September 11, 2001, a defining moment in the history of the city. The demise of New York has been predicted many times. It has never happened. Each time there has been a renewed burst of energy, which in turn has created a new set of notable New Yorkers. The Columbia University Oral History Research Office is now working to collect the reminiscences of those New Yorkers. It does so with a commitment to bringing the products of staff research to the public in a variety of ways, and with the same commitment to the profession that has marked its past fifty or more years. This is among the first attempts to use the new media in that mission. It will not be the last.

—Ronald J. Grele, Director Emeritus of the Oral History Research Office


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