An adult voice amid pan­demic child­ish­ness

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - Georgewill@wash­post.com

In his 72 years, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III of the U.S. Court of Ap­peals for the 4th Cir­cuit, who was raised in seg­re­gated Rich­mond, ac­knowl­edges that he has seen much change, of­ten for the bet­ter, in­clud­ing ad­vances in the 1960s. But in his el­e­gant new mem­oir, “All Fall­ing Faiths: Re­flec­tions on the Prom­ise and Fail­ure of the 1960s,” he ex­plains why to­day’s dis­tem­per was in­cu­bated in that “burnt and rav­aged for­est of a decade.”

He ar­rived at Yale Univer­sity in Septem­ber 1963, a year af­ter John F. Kerry and a year be­fore Ge­orge W. Bush, “never dream­ing that this great univer­sity would in many ways set the ex­am­ple of what ed­u­ca­tion should not be.” Ev­ery­thing on cam­pus be­came politi­cized, a pre­cur­sor to the sat­u­ra­tion of the larger cul­ture. Amer­ica was ca­reen­ing to­ward to­day’s con­tentious­ness, as “those who rightly chal­lenged the as­sump­tions of oth­ers be­came slowly more in­dig­nant at any chal­lenge to their own.”

As the teach­ing of Amer­i­can his­tory be­came “one ex­tended ex­er­cise in self­flag­el­la­tion,” his­tor­i­cal il­lit­er­acy grew, lead­ing to to­day’s “War on Names.” Wilkinson’s book ar­rives as Yale, plumbing new depths of shal­low­ness, re­names Cal­houn Col­lege. Yale has cho­sen virtue-sig­nal­ing rather than teach­ing. It should have helped stu­dents think about the complex as­sess­ments of com­pli­cated his­tor­i­cal fig­ures, such as the South Carolinian who was a pro­found po­lit­i­cal the­o­rist, an an­ti­im­pe­ri­al­ist, an ac­com­plished states­man and a de­fender of slav­ery, a chal­leng­ing com­pound of great­ness and moral fail­ure. Yale’s past, as Wilkinson ex­pe­ri­enced it, was pro­logue: “Yale it­self be­came less a place for orig­i­nal thought than an in­tel­lec­tual in­ferno po­liced for its al­le­giance to the pre­vail­ing alien­ation.”

Dis­ori­ented by the Viet­nam War, “Yale be­came a place of child­like clar­ity. I ar­rived at a univer­sity that asked ques­tions; I left one that fas­tened a creed.” We still live with this 1960s legacy — con­tro­versy has ac­quired a “ra­zor’s edge,” and “venom and ve­he­mence” have be­come fash­ion­able.

The mem­oir also ar­rives as the na­tion braces for an­other bat­tle over a Supreme Court nom­i­nee, per­haps il­lus­trat­ing Wilkinson’s be­lief that an­other legacy of the 1960s is that “Amer­ica’s le­gal cul­ture is also ter­ri­bly di­vided.” When he en­tered law school in 1968, the school’s dean said: “Laws are the great river­banks be­tween which so­ci­ety flows.” The law, the dean said, “ver­bal­ized ag­gres­sion,” tam­ing it through an ad­ver­sar­ial sys­tem that re­quires each party to lis­ten to the other’s ar­gu­ment.

For the Earl War­ren court, Wilkinson, who was nom­i­nated to the bench by Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan, has warm words: It “opened the ar­ter­ies of change, broad­ened the fran­chise, equal­ized ac­cess to schools and fa­cil­i­ties, gave the com­mon man the First Amend­ment, and do­nated to a so­ci­ety in tur­moil its last­ing gift of peace­ful change.”

In ad­di­tion to be­ing an or­na­ment to the na­tion’s ju­di­ciary, Wilkinson is a splen­did anachro­nism, a gen­tle­man raised by a fa­ther who “came to Satur­day break­fast in his coat and tie” and who be­lieved that “man­ners for­ti­fied man against his na­ture.” Wilkinson was raised in 1950s af­flu­ence: Sum­mers were “a long queue of black-tie galas,” “lun­cheons in the day and debu­tante par­ties ev­ery evening.” His world was “short on am­bi­gu­ity” but not on ab­so­lutes, so he grew up “an­chored, for­ti­fied by con­stancy.”

When he went to prep school in New Jersey, his South­ern ac­cent caused a tele­phone op­er­a­tor to ask him to “speak English.” He played soccer with Dick Per­sh­ing, the grand­son of Gen. John J. Per­sh­ing. Dick went to Viet­nam and is buried in Ar­ling­ton be­side his grand­fa­ther.

But in the coars­en­ing, em­bit­ter­ing 1960s, Wilkinson writes, “more Amer­i­cans an­ni­hi­lated fel­low cit­i­zens in their con­scious­ness than were slain on the field of any bat­tle.” In a har­bin­ger of very re­cent events, “the short­haired and hard-hat­ted sensed that class prej­u­dice had sim­ply been sub­sti­tuted for race ha­tred.”

He lo­cates the ge­n­e­sis of to­day’s politics of re­cip­ro­cal re­sent­ments in “the con­tempt with which the young elites of the Six­ties dis­missed the con­tri­bu­tions of Amer­ica’s work­ing classes.” We have reached a point where “sub-cul­tures be­gin to pre­dom­i­nate and the power of our uni­fy­ing sym­bols fades. We be­come oth­ers to our­selves.” The “in­sis­tent pre­sen­tism” that be­came a per­ma­nent men­tal­ity in the 1960s crip­ples our abil­ity to con­tem­plate where we came from or can go. “Some­times in­di­vid­u­als lose, and so­ci­eties gain,” Wilkinson writes. “Maybe some­one’s loss of priv­i­lege is an­other’s gain in dig­nity. Per­haps there is a self­ish­ness in ev­ery song of lament.” At this mo­ment of pan­demic vul­gar­ity and child­ish­ness, his ele­giac mem­oir is a pre­cious re­minder of what an adult voice sounds like.

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