American Dreamers

William Hogeland on Pete Seeger, William F. Buckley, Jr., and public history in the Boston Review:

Buckley and Seeger share, along with fake-sounding accents and preppie backgrounds, a problem that inspires forgetfulness, falsification, and denial in their supporters. Fired by opposed and equally fervent political passions, both men once took actions that their cultural progeny find untenable.

But these two men—their careers strangely linked in the hunt for communists, the struggle for equal rights, and the emerging “culture wars” of the postwar era—are worthy of consideration without air-brushed reminiscence. Their names alone may evoke, for those who lived through it, the anxiety and turmoil that marked American cultural and political life during the Cold War. Mutual hostility between Seeger types and Buckley types devolved on fears of imminent, world-ending invasions; plans for preventing evil from ever recurring on a mass scale; and stark disagreements over what is legitimately American. When the Soviet Union was annexing its neighbors, filling gulags, and making swaggering predictions of world dominance, and the United States was toppling elected leaders in favor of authoritarians and hounding domestic dissenters, all amid the stockpiling of nuclear weapons, the division among Americans could feel, to those on both sides, like the last battle for humanity’s soul. What Seeger and Buckley’s youthful actions meant in their time, deliberately obscured by today’s lionizers, continues to mean something crucial now.