The word I’ve heard most often to describe Fred Siegel since his death on Sunday night is “mensch.” That’s for good reason. Fred had the warmth and spirit, the down-to-earth common sense and combativeness, of a former shop steward joking and quarrelling on a bench on the Upper West Side. In warmer weather, Fred often sat on the front porch of his Ditmas Park home engaging with walkers-by. He was curious about everyone he met: not just the proverbial taxi driver, but the dry cleaner, the delivery guy, neighbors left and right, and his friends’ surly teenaged children. He was allergic to any kind of snobbery—not an attribute you find very often in the dinner parties frequented by New York City’s academics and writers. A distinct populist strain was present in his persona and work—see his description of a youthful encounter with a bloviating Norman Mailer in these pages, or his final book The Revolt Against the Masses—with obvious relevance to present-day debates. Such issues continued to engage his vigorous mind to the end.
If he was a determined normie in some respects, everyone who met him realized very quickly that he was also a serious, old-school New York intellectual. Fred spent part of his childhood in New Jersey, but he was a city boy through and through. He was deeply read in such mid-twentieth-century thinkers as The New Republic founder Herbert Croly, H. G. Wells, and H. L. Mencken, whose booboisie-sneering was the object of Fred’s ire, as well as later eminences like Paul Goodman, David Riesman, and Christopher Lasch. This grounding in the political and cultural writings of the era, and indeed the whole of twentieth-century progressivism, gave him unique insight into the transformations in politics and culture swept in by the tornado of the 1960s.
Among those insights was one about the changing nature of American individualism to which I find myself coming back repeatedly. Fred was among the first people to notice the incongruence between the individualism of American republican traditions and the “radical individualism” of the 1960s. In a 1988 article for Dissent, edited by his friend and mentor, Irving Howe, Fred observed a crucial problem brewing for his fellow liberals. They wanted to tolerate and celebrate all “lifestyles,” including those with a tendency to invite poverty and disorder. At the same time, they lobbied to expand state services and, inevitably, government bureaucracies. Fred coined the term “dependent individualism” to describe the result, referring to an unsustainable contradiction between unregulated freedom and disciplined personal responsibility.
At the time, dependent individualism referred to welfare or AFDC, of course—New York City welfare rolls had doubled under the Lindsay administration and stayed at historic levels until the Giuliani years. But that was not all Fred meant. He saw that the radical individualism of his boomer peers was corrosive of the civic norms and political maturity vital to sustaining a multiracial, multiethnic liberal society. “Without cohesive and ethically informed political communities and movements to stand watch over the legislative process,” he wrote, “reforms tend to be waylaid by powerful interest groups and even to aggravate the problems they were designed to deal with.” Dependent individualism, in other words, lay at the root of the administrative state.
To those of us lucky enough to know him well, Fred was the most generous and thoughtful of friends, a peerless conversationalist, and a wise old soul. I know I won’t be the only one who, as time goes on and our politics and culture continue to confound us, will wonder: “What would Fred say?”