Jonathan Zimmerman: Alito's mythical feel-good America
[JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools."]
ONCE UPON A TIME, Americans lived by a few simple maxims: God, country and family. Children respected their parents; students listened to their teachers; citizens followed the law. Then along came the 1960s, when liberal elites undermined traditional sources of authority. College kids smoked dope, feminists burned their bras and black militants burned down the cities. So now we have welfare, divorce, crime and a sick society that has lost its moral compass.
That's the Republican Party line on the 1960s, when everything good turned sour. Well, maybe not everything. Amid the tumult and violence, a few Americans held fast to timeless American values. And that's where our next prospective Supreme Court justice comes in.
Samuel A. Alito Jr., you see, has become the GOP's anti-'60s cultural hero. Republican supporters seized eagerly on Alito's opening remarks at his confirmation hearing, when he compared his traditional upbringing in Hamilton Township, N.J., to the chaos and unrest he encountered at Princeton University.
Hamilton was "an unpretentious, down-to-earth community," Alito recalled, where kids went to school in the morning and played baseball in the afternoon. But at Princeton, where Alito enrolled in 1968, he found something else. "I saw some very smart people and very privileged people behaving irresponsibly," Alito said at the hearing. "I couldn't help making a contrast between some of the worst of what I saw on the campus and the good sense and the decency of the people back in my own community."
Alito's story meshes perfectly with the larger Republican narrative about the 1960s: A lot of bad things happened, but a few good people resisted them. "Judge Alito is a paragon of the oldfashioned working-class ethic," gushed the New York Times' David Brooks. "In a culture that celebrates the rebel … he respects tradition, order and authority."
To Michael Barone of U.S. News & World Report, Alito symbolizes the "dutiful people" who adhered to tradition when the "beautiful people" attacked it. "While Manhattan glitterati thronged Leonard Bernstein's apartment to celebrate the murderous Black Panthers," Barone declared, "ordinary people … were going to work, raising their families and teaching their children to obey lawful authority and work their way up in the world."
There's only one problem with this GOP version of postwar history: It isn't true. The feel-good Republican vision of pre-'60s America is a myth. Urban kids were already using drugs in the 1950s, when J. Edgar Hoover called heroin a menace to American society. The FBI was busily harassing gays, who formed visible communities in many cities. And urban poverty was on the rise, even as most middle-class Americans looked the other away.
Most of all, a vicious racism infected enormous swaths of American society. And not just in the "Jim Crow" South, which is the story we know best, but in the urban North as well. In such cities as Chicago and Detroit, whites organized to keep African Americans out of their neighborhoods. They rallied outside city housing agencies to bar black tenants; they picketed white homeowners who sold property to black buyers. Even more, as University of Pennsylvania historian Thomas Sugrue has shown, whites often assaulted and vandalized blacks who did move into white areas. Were all whites racist? Of course not. But we can no longer pretend that they uniformly "respected authority" and "followed the law," as Brooks and Barone maintain.
While turning a blind eye to the problems of the 1950s, Republicans also exaggerate the disorder and conflict of the 1960s. In 1967, the year before Alito came to campus, more than half of Princeton's students said they supported American involvement in the Vietnam War. Visiting Princeton that spring, New Republic reporter Dotson Rader was shocked at how little political discussion or dissent he encountered.
"I wandered around the campus and heard the band play for the Princeton-Yale game and saw the students with their dates wander toward the stadium," Rader wrote,"as if no war was being fought and no people were in prison for opposing it, as if Harlem and Watts and the Mississippi Delta country did not exist, as if the world were just and men did not die senselessly."
To be sure, student protests would escalate after Alito arrived. In May 1970, as Alito was finishing his sophomore year, students staged a campuswide strike to protest the escalation of the Vietnam War into Cambodia.
Did some Princeton students behave"irresponsibly," as Alito recalled? Of course they did. Several days after the May 1970 strike, for example, students took over an off-campus office where Princeton faculty members performed defense-related research. They painted the walls with graffiti, set fire to the office's air-conditioning unit and littered the grounds with trash.
But such incidents were rare. As journalist Don Oberdorfer documents in his history of Princeton, most protest was orderly and peaceful. Campus demonstrations reflected the nation's best democratic traditions: free speech, debate and, yes, responsibility.
And that brings us back to Alito. Despite his paeans to the decency of his childhood neighbors, did he know that many hard-working white communities were working hard to keep blacks out? And when he indicted Princeton students for behaving irresponsibly, was he including their peaceful protests against the Vietnam War?
Although he doesn't remember his membership in the conservative Concerned Alumni for Princeton, Alito does remember his youth and college years — indeed, he freely described them in his opening statement. So the rest of us should feel free to inquire about what he actually meant.
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