The Enduring Importance of Nathan Glazer

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February 6, 2019 Topic: Politics Region: Americas Tags: Nathan GlazerIntellectualBooksAcademiaProgress

The Enduring Importance of Nathan Glazer

Like a number of his fellow New York intellectuals, Glazer’s life remained poised between the little magazine and the Academy.

“How does a radical—a mild radical, it is true, but still someone who felt closer to radical than to liberal writers and politicians in the late 1950s—end up by the early 1970s a conservative, a mild conservative, but still closer to those who now call themselves conservative than to those who call themselves liberal?” Glazer asked in his essay “On Being Deradicalized.” Part of the explanation lay in a year he had spent working in the federal government in Washington, DC He come away with a respect for the talented bureaucrats with whom he worked.

He discovered that, in fact, they had considered many of the radical ideas that Glazer and others had dreamed of, but that the implementation of social programs was far more complicated than he had realized and was made so much harder because “so many varied interests played a role in government, and . . . most of them were legitimate interests. It was a big country, and it contained more kinds of people than were dreamed of on the shores of the Hudson.” But he also found a kinship between his mild radicalism and mild conservatism; each favored the “anti-bureaucratic, the small and immediate, the human-scale as the salvation of a society grown too large, too highly organized and articulated.” Who then had moved? Perhaps it was the Democratic Party, pushed leftward by the young radicals of the sixties, who had done much of the moving.


Glazer and his friends at The Public Interest—Irving Kristol, Dan Bell, Daniel Patrick Moynihan—were soon labelled neoconservatives by Michael Harrington in Dissent magazine. (Irving Kristol, who had privately referred to himself as such in earlier years, now proudly took it and ran with it as he moved rightward toward true conservatism.) Today, the original meaning of the word has been all but buried by its more recent connection to the hawkish foreign policy of the second Bush administration. But in the seventies and eighties, it was one’s take on domestic policy that mattered. For Glazer (as for Bell and Moynihan) the neoconservative label obscured as much as it revealed. The fact is that Glazer’s skepticism about liberal social policy never turned into a conservative dismissal of it. In another classic essay, “Reform Work, Not Welfare,” Glazer found welfare wanting, but pushed for increased government assistance and programs to make low income work more rewarding. But one had to actually read Glazer to appreciate the complexity of his views, the nuances of his analyses—and few did.

And for Glazer, particularly, perhaps nothing mattered more than his stance on affirmative action. If his disaffection with Great Society liberalism and his opposition to the New Left separated him from much of mainstream liberalism at the time, his strong and vocal opposition to affirmative action pushed him beyond the pale for many liberals.

For Glazer, the son of immigrant Jews who had gone to college in an era when unspoken quotas kept many qualified Jewish kids out of the nation’s best schools, the belief that success should be based on merit was more than just a matter of abstract principal. His impassioned 1975 book Affirmative Discrimination, written after he had moved to Harvard, placed him at the center of a deeply divisive debate. Sides were clearly chosen and Glazer found himself aligned with conservatives once again on this highly visible issue.

In the court of public political opinion, one is judged by one’s associations and the fact is that a number of the writers associated with The Public Interest, led by Irving Kristol, did move rightward. For these men and women, the critiques that Glazer, Wilson, Bell, Moynihan and others were making of liberal social policies led them to larger philosophical conclusions about the difficulty—and hazards—of social engineering. Their moral temper led them to a belief in the importance of culture as against government social programs.

Glazer shared these concerns, and yet his mind and temperament led him elsewhere—into a kind of political no man’s land. His friend Daniel Bell left the editorship of The Public Interest as his views diverged from Kristol and the others. Daniel Patrick Moynihan remained a contributor to the magazine but also became a staunch Democratic senator for New York. Glazer not only stayed with The Public Interest but comfortably became its co-editor. He had no use for labels, no fear of them, though, to be sure, he lamented their foolishness and inaccuracy. He has always been content to be a party of one.

Glazer never lost his belief in the importance of social welfare policy, despite the limitations he saw in it attributable not only to human fallibility, but also to larger philosophical concerns about the disruptive consequences of government intervention and rapid social change. He feels that the issues of poverty, family stability, and inequality must be addressed however imperfectly by government, that we can learn from our mistakes, that we must keep on trying. Some might claim that this is nothing more than softheartedness—or even worse, soft headedness—an attachment to an expired set of beliefs that cannot be shaken, even in the light of facts.

All this, of course, would be wrong.

In the mid nineties, some twenty years after the publication of his book Affirmative Discrimination, Glazer made news with a reversal of his original position. “In Defense of Preference” from The New Republic amounts to a powerful endorsement of affirmative action on campus. It is also a guide to Glazer’s mind and his stance on the world. After years of being pilloried on the Left for his views, he shocked many conservatives with what seemed like a sudden reversal. Those on the Right who had relied on his arguments, who counted him in their camp, began to whisper that Glazer might be unreliable.

And, of course, Glazer had long ago chosen to accept life’s ambiguities, its uncertainties over party or cause. As a thinker he has never fit in—into the academy, into an ideological mode, into any of the straightjackets that all sides of the political spectrum rely on for convenience.

Glazer did not decide his earlier logic was faulty, nor dismiss the importance of merit, nor the distortions caused by affirmative action and the endless search for diversity. He continued to maintain that affirmative action was misplaced when applied to groups aside from African Americans. But, at the same time, he looked back over twenty years and saw that he had been wrong on other things. He saw that despite many gains, African Americans had not made the progress he expected and that is moreover necessary for America’s democratic health. He saw the importance of “participation” for African Americans in all levels of education and in all spheres of life. He believed that, despite continuing education gaps, black Americans should not be excluded from America’s best colleges, just as businessmen had come to understand the importance of their contribution to the corporation. And that America continues to owe “a special obligation” to African Americans because of a special history of malignity toward them. For Glazer, purity of logic must give way to messy facts, high principle to the “grubby ordinariness” of how life in fact works—and doesn’t work.

This is not merely sentiment in Glazer, an emotional swing back to the Left, an attempt to curry favor with the rest of the Harvard faculty after years in the wilderness on this issue. Rather one sees that it grows out of a respect for larger epistemological concerns. The fact is that he is not exactly sure why African American progress has been impeded to the degree it has. Glazer abhors the notion that absolute equality of achievement in all areas must be mandated. Different groups and different individuals have different talents. But even with this, a disparity remains between blacks and whites that cannot be tolerated and that we have failed to fully cure.

We have identified many things that may contribute to this inequality, some of which are within our control and others that are subject to the forces of history, like the lingering fact of racism, the flight of good jobs from the city, the concentration of black poverty and its deleterious effects to the breakdown of the two parent family. Conservatives see it as primarily a cultural problem, those on the left as predominantly an economic one. Glazer, like many other thoughtful people, sees the interplay of economics and racism with family instability, the combination of structure and culture. The fact remains that there is a gap in our knowledge not only about the exact causes and how they interrelate, but of how to fix the problem. Social science falls short and at this moment, Glazer accepts that he—we—do not yet know and may never fully know. Faced with this he chooses what he sees as the most pragmatic solution that will cause the least harm to those who have suffered the most—and whose lack of progress most impedes American progress.

Meanwhile he long ago made peace with the uncertainty that threatens any fixed political position. And it is for this reason that Glazer remained, as he called himself, a man “of weak [political] commitments.” For those who insist on very strong commitments, who wish to be part of a team, Glazer will always remain a thoroughly and gloriously unreliable man.