Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Seymour Martin Lipset

Seymour Martin Lipset, the sociologist famous for the idea that America was immune to Europe's brand of socialism because of its fierce individualism, has died at age 84.

He was one of a group of Cold War-era Jewish leftist intellectuals from the City College of New York to turn into what we now know as neo-conservatives. Among the other neocons to come out of CCNY were Nathan Glazer, and Irving Kristol (father of the Weekly Standard's editor Bill Kristol and the so-called "Godfather of Neoconservatism"). Another, Irving Howe -- the man who apparently coined the very term "New York Jewish Intellectual," wasn't quite a neocon, but did drift rightward. CCNY also produced Julius Rosenberg, who, with his wife Ethel, was executed for treason in the early 50s. [Former New York mayor Ed Koch and former secretary of state Colin Powell also went to CCNY. But wait, there's more: Ira Gershwin, Judd Hirsch, Zero Mostel, Mario Puzo, Walter Mosely, Upton Sinclair, Bernard Malamud, and Jonas Salk.]

What exactly is a neoconservative? Jonah Goldberg of the conservative (but not necessarily neoconservative National Review gave this short history in a two part series on the subject:
The word "neoconservative" was coined by Michael Harrington and the editors of Dissent to describe their old friends who'd moved to the right. It was an insult, along the lines of "running dog" or "fellow traveler." Or perhaps the "neo" was intended to conjure "neo-Nazi," the only other political label to sport the prefix. As Seymour Martin Lipset, one of the most-respected social scientists of the 20th century and an original neocon wrote, the term "was invented as an invidious label to undermine political opponents, most of whom have been unhappy with being so described."

But the important thing to remember is that the term described a process which the Left considered intellectual betrayal, not a distinct ideology.
Dissent, it should be noted, was started by Irving Howe in 1954.

Michael Barone assesses Lipset's legacy in the neoconservative Weekly Standard:
Lipset's life work, said historian John Patrick Diggins, was to "explain America to itself" -- he was Tocqueville's heir. And to explain our many particularities and peculiarities: why, as journalist Martin Walker put it, Americans exhibit almost Iranian levels of religiosity, and why they hate turning out to vote but enjoy joining voluntary associations. He appreciated the role of religion in shaping the national character. "The United States is the only Protestant sectarian country in the world," he told an interviewer in 2000, "and Protestant sectarians are very moralistic and believe that one should do what's right, not what other people want." But he didn't see America through rose-colored glasses. He noted that treaties with Indians were routinely broken, "not by the government but by local settlers," and--with a glance northward--that after Custer's defeat, "the Sioux, who had wiped out an American battalion, went across the border and surrendered to six Mounties! The reason they did so was that they knew the Queen's treaties were kept."
Lipset, who often relied on Alexis de Tocqueville for insight into the American character, became relied upon for his own insight: "More than any other figure, with the possible exception of John Kenneth Galbraith, he plausibly explains to us baffled aliens why you Americans are so very odd," wrote the British journalist Martin Walker in a book review (Quoted in the Washington Post).
The New York Times' obituary has an amusing anecdote from the last years of Lipset's life:
"For the last years of his life, his wife said, Mr. Lipset was thought to be unable to speak because of the effects of an earlier stroke, at least until a visitor mispronounced the name of Jacques Derrida, the influential French philosopher. Astonishingly, Mr. Lipset corrected him."

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