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Nathan Glazer’s Life of the Mind

In his critique of 1960s movements, Glazer was not defending conservatism so much as trying to protect a clearer path to liberalism.

JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images

When I was 22 years old, Nathan Glazer, the Harvard professor of education and sociology who died this past January, stood for everything I was against. It was 1964, the year of the Berkeley student revolt, and Glazer, then teaching at that university, wrote that he was “filled with foreboding” by the actions of the student demonstrators. Just one more old-fashioned reactionary, I thought at the time, one who failed to understand, as Bob Dylan had sung the year before, that the “answer was blowing in the wind.”

Over the years, my ideas have changed; although I never followed former colleagues such as David Horowitz into the far right, I did come to locate myself somewhere in the middle left of the spectrum. We all, I came to believe, change, or at least should. Did Glazer? At one level, the answer is obvious: On some of the most important issues of his day, Glazer was sensitive to evidence and willing to change his mind, none more famously than his eventual endorsement of a soft form of multiculturalism. This was one of his most admirable qualities, but it ought also to be stressed that on the single most important political issue of our era, Glazer displayed a remarkable consistency throughout his life: He was an opponent of totalitarianism and authoritarianism whether it took form on the right or on the left.

Last year I published a book called The Politics of Petulance in which I identified Glazer and his fellow intellectuals as “mature liberals.” “I like the idea of ‘mature liberals,’” Nat emailed me shortly before he died, “despite my identification as a neocon I still consider myself a liberal. But neocon now has become the identification of an activist and belligerent stance in foreign policy I don’t share. I will call myself a “mature liberal” in future, if I have occasion to call myself anything…” Alas, no such occasion presented itself.


Mature liberalism understood something that I, in my 22-year-old wisdom, had failed to grasp. Had I more fully appreciated the historical horrors of both Nazism and Stalinism, I would have had a far greater sense of why Glazer and his friends took the positions they did. In the end, I think Glazer was wrong to see both the student movement and the black power movements as incipient forms of fascism, especially now that the genuine forms of fascism, alas, are making themselves felt around the world. But with hindsight, I can more fully understand why he was mistaken. Emotionalism, as Max Weber had so brilliantly suggested in “Politics as a Vocation,” can be deadly for liberal values. In his critique of the movements of the 1960s, Glazer was not defending conservatism so much as trying to protect a clearer path to liberalism.

Over the course of Glazer’s life, moreover, whatever threats extremist movements of the left posed to liberalism eventually paled in significance to the triumph of the radical right, and especially its all-but-complete takeover of the Republican Party. Glazer and his friends had called attention to the emergence of the radical right in the 1950s and developed theories to explain it; their major contribution was the notion that those attracted to rightist movements, first McCarthy and then Goldwater and his followers, were losing status and sought in authoritarian politics a way to make up for their loss. Glazer and his colleagues aimed at moving well past a simplistic (in their view) emphasis on economics in favor of a richer emphasis on culture.

Of all the mature liberals, Glazer was one of the most comfortable with the concept of culture. Economic determinism offers little to someone so interested in architecture, for example. But a concern with people and how they develop meaning in their lives very much does. In the brilliant book he wrote with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot, real people jump out on every page. Glazer and Moynihan not only studied the modern city, they brought it to life. And, in this case, they were also sociologically correct. They buried, once and for all, the myth of the melting pot. In this era influenced by multiculturalism, we, like Glazer and Moynihan, appreciate the persistence, not the obsolescence, of ethnic identification.

In today’s academy, social scientists begin with theory, often-grand theory, and then see to what degree actual people confirm or disprove those theories. Glazer was as indifferent to grand theorizing as he was to ideological consistency. One of the co-authors of The Lonely Crowd, which remains and is likely to remain an American classic, Glazer never left behind the humanities in his work as a social scientist, skeptical, always, toward academic pretension and quasi-scientific number crunching. Like David Riesman and Daniel Bell, his primary audience was never his fellow academics. Glazer wrote for the world.

To the best of my knowledge, Nathan Glazer was the last of his kind to pass away. (Dennis Wrong, a sociologist at New York University, died one month before him.) I am not a doom-sayer; there will no doubt always be public intellectuals, even in academia. But I do not expect that many of them will possess Glazer’s unusual combination of brazenness in the way he expressed himself with modesty toward what he was expressing. It is not an exaggeration to say that Glazer wrote literature as well as sociology. You will not find his a major name in the world of academic journals. You will in the realm of books that define and change the world. If that does not define what it means to lead a good life, I do not know what could.

This article is adapted from Alan Wolfe’s speech at the Memorial for Nathan Glazer on May 11 held at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and organized by his three daughters.