Will: An adult voice amid pandemic childishness
WASHINGTON – In his 72 years, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, who was raised in segregated Richmond, Virginia, 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 in September 1963, a year after John 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 self-flagellation," 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 anti-imperialist, 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.
Wilkinson's 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 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.
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post.