by george_scialabba on August 6, 2009

The previous symposium posts and comments are an embarrassment of riches. Doing them justice is out of the question, of course, but here goes.


As Michael notes, “persuasive” is a little slippery. I probably should have written “plausible” instead. I do, though, mostly agree with Richard Bernstein (and E.D. Hirsch, among others) about the desirability of children steeping themselves in the history and literature of their own language, culture, and society before setting out to explore others. To some extent, the reasons are a priori. I believe that outgrowing intense early attachments, and the generally manageable emotional conflicts this involves, are a developmental necessity. Children should first identify with their parents, country, neighborhood, religion, ethnic group, and baseball team. This identification supplies the sense of environmental mastery that is foundational to a healthy psyche. Soon enough they will notice that their parents, country, religion, etc. are imperfect in this way or that. This recognition induces ambivalence about previously unquestioned (moral, cultural, etc.) authority. To grow gradually into this ambivalence – into an acceptance that parents can both love and (sometimes unfairly) punish, that a religion can both inspire and delude, that a baseball team can stink and still be worth rooting for – is an essential maturational task. If it’s not accomplished, then the ambivalence becomes disabling and psychic boundaries unstable; one’s emotional appetites are erratic and outsized; one alternates between resentful submission to authority and indiscriminate rejection.

The same argument (more or less) is made in a non-psychoanalytic form by Michael Walzer in The Company of Critics and Interpretation and Social Criticism. First, according to Walzer, we uncritically assimilate a local history and morality. Later conflicts with other traditions are resolved not by transcending both in favor of cosmopolitan detachment but by reinterpreting the local story, finding a meaning for new experiences in its familiar terms. As in the psychoanalytic case, the secure possession of a specific identity is what enables the recognition of otherness.

So far, pretty abstract. But of course, my sense of how politics and art are related comes first of all from my own experience. I read James’s Portrait of a Lady and Lawrence’s Women in Love before I’d heard of feminism. Imaginative identification with those brave, gifted women and their struggles to lead full, independent lives produced in me an immediate commitment to sexual equality. The same for racial equality, when I encountered Twain’s Nigger Jim, with his ineffable dignity. Blake and Shelley first taught me to question authority. And like Orwell (or was it Shaw? or both?), I came to socialism via Dickens; in my case through those heaven-shaking, heart-stabbing words that follow the death of the poor ragamuffin Jo in Bleak House:

Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.

Likewise, the masterpieces of Russian, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Hebrew, Hindu, Urdu, and every other literature furnish plenty of materials for a far-reaching moral and political education – if taught well. If taught badly, no curriculum is much use.

And that’s why I’m skeptical of programmatic multiculturalism – not because it’s multicultural but because it’s a program, bureaucratically designed and administered. (To the extent that it’s the result of individual teacherly enthusiasm, of course, it can only be a good thing.) Taught with passion and imagination, the traditional humanities are moral and political dynamite. But from the cheap plywood of educational methodology, no sturdy or elegant thing was ever fashioned.

Since Bernstein’s book and the high tide of the curriculum wars, another powerful critique of multiculturalism has appeared, this time from the left, in the shape of Walter Benn Michaels’s *The Trouble With Diversity* (2006). It’s not a brand-new line of argument. It echoes Jacoby, Jim Sleeper, Adolph Reed, Thomas Frank, and others; and many CTers have doubtless weighed in on it in various forums. (Some have actually found it less than fully persuasive – I stick my tongue out at you.)

Michaels argues that identity politics is a mistake: not just tactically – because it makes it harder for liberals to win elections – but also strategically – because changing the racial and sexual distribution of privilege is the wrong goal. If the problem is that blacks and women are disproportionately unemployed, underpaid, uninsured, and undereducated, then the solution is full employment, a more generous minimum wage, universal health insurance, and Head Start, all to be paid for by progressive taxation and reduced defense spending. In short, class politics plus robust enforcement of existing anti-discrimination laws. What society’s most vulnerable women and blacks most need (and, in general, want) is economic equality. Curricular inclusion and elite representation are far less important to them – and, not coincidentally, far easier to win from our rulers.

On a previous thread, we discussed the ideal of connoisseurship, i.e. of criticism concerned with judging aesthetic merit rather than explicating ideological presupposition and implication. Of course one can do both, but who does? It’s hard enough to do either. It isn’t that I believe art should never be put to political use; on the contrary, art is quite as often about politics as it is about love, money, or significant form. I just think it should be done straightforwardly and pungently, in everyday conversation, rather than elaborately and obliquely, as part of a scholarly project of demystification. “Would you rather marry Madame Bovary or Major Barbara?” seems like an unanswerable argument for educating women. “You want Cedric Daniels (from The Wire) or Mark Fuhrman running your town’s police department?” seems like a good opening wedge in an argument for racially integrating law enforcement. But finding “the Empire at work” in “the selectivity of and emphases in what is included and, by implication, excluded” in Aida (Said, Cultural Imperialism) doesn’t really help much. I don’t mind the politicization of culture, when done by amateurs. It’s the professionalization of the politicization of culture that I’m dubious about.

Getting down to Michael’s cases: Yes, I think I was too kind to Bernstein. There was a prosecutorial tone to his book and, as Michael suggests, an unwillingness to see (or acknowledge) what his targets were (rightly) exercised about that I should have brought out in the review. Perhaps I was bending over backwards: at the time I was constantly seething over the complacent banality and reflexive centrism of Times cultural coverage (including Bernstein’s), and I remember admonishing myself that I ought to keep that feeling separate from my response to the book.

Too soft on Cockburn; too hard on Said? But Said was such a culture hero; I thought his reputation wouldn’t even register a few knocks from me. (I doubt it has.) Besides, Cockburn wrote divine prose back then, before he soured, while Said’s prose still sets my teeth on edge. That’s what really ticked me off, I think.

About Mapplethorpe and Morrison: I confess I meant to induce some uncertainty over whether I endorsed or merely “ventriloquized” those judgments. I agreed with them, but not very confidently, and haven’t revisited them. I actually liked Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. But I thought Mapplethorpe was just preening. I didn’t perceive any emotional content to the photos; they seemed as blank as New Yorker ads. Maybe I didn’t look long or hard enough. I still don’t much like Toni Morrison. No, I don’t agree that she’s the equal, as a narrator, psychologist, or stylist, of Coetzee, Lessing, and Garcia Marquez. I thought Borges, Calvino, Nabokov, Kundera, Larkin, Ted Hughes, Henry Roth, or Philip Roth should have gotten a Nobel instead.


Lasch and Rorty did indeed stand “miles apart” on several big questions, as Rich ably enumerates. But on the biggest question – modernity, pro or con? – they at least stood on the same side of the Great Divide. Remember that avowal by Lasch I quoted (page 174):

Once and for all: I have no wish to return to the past, even if I thought a return to the past was possible. The solution to our social problems lies in a completion of the democratic movement inaugurated in the eighteenth century, not in a return to a pre-democratic way of life. Socialism, notwithstanding the horrors committed in its name, still represents the legitimate heir of liberal democracy. Marxism and psychoanalysis still offer the best guides to an understanding of modern society and to political action designed to make it more democratic.

Lasch died in his prime, at 60. If he’d lived another decade or two, he might have sputtered out, making increasingly gnomic and ill-tempered noises, like Philip Rieff. Or he might have summoned a final great effort and tried to answer the profound questions he’d raised. I’d like to think the latter, but who knows? Alas, I don’t see who else is going to answer them.

Rich appears to doubt that the questions Lasch raised – which boil down to: how have individual psychology, intimate relations, and political culture been altered by the drastic change of scale that industrialism entails? – are really all that urgent. Yes, maybe things have changed in roughly the way Lasch claimed in Haven in a Heartless World, The Culture of Narcissism, and The Minimal Self. At any rate Rich, after admirably summarizing Lasch’s argument in those books – i.e., that mass society is “destroying communities; creating hollowed out individuals, lacking autonomy, vulnerable to consumer blandishments, oscillating between rage and fear; abdicating familial authority to faceless professional `experts’; and eviscerating any vestiges of local autonomy and worker skills in favor of giant state and corporate bureaucracies” – registers no disagreement. Instead he counters: what’s so bad about that? – and what was so good about the world we’ve left behind? Pre-industrial life was insecure, benighted, brutish, and short, after all. Besides, there’s no going back. If any historical development was ever irreversible, surely mass production is. No one has convincingly imagined any alternative – certainly Lasch didn’t. In the name of what, exactly, did he continually disparage the only – admittedly mixed – blessings the toiling masses have ever enjoyed: unions, consumer goods, mass culture, the welfare state?

In the name, above all, of human nature and its limits. As Lasch explains in the lengthy autobiographical introduction to True and Only Heaven, it was raising a family that first prompted him to question progressivism. He had an ideal in mind – a lovely one, if you remember:

A house full of people; a crowded table ranging across the generations; four-handed music at the piano; nonstop conversation and cooking; baseball games and swimming in the afternoon; long walks after dinner; a poker game or Diplomacy or charades in the evening, all these activities mixing adults and children.

What threatened this family idyll was not only the occasional failures of capitalism: gross inequality, economic instability, war. It was the normal functioning of industrial society that “thwarted the need for joy in work, stable connections, family life, a sense of place and historical continuity,” offering increased consumption as a substitute. Raw ambition, bureaucratic savvy, skilled self-promotion, rootless mobility – the whole pathology of the Organization Man – supplanted the pre-industrial ideal of “devoted service to a calling,” seen as its own reward, along with the respect of peers and neighbors. The degradation of work in his children’s world was Lasch’s original grievance as a parent.

The left’s traditional answer to this concern has been: 1) we’ll all share the disagreeable work more equally; and 2) there’ll be less and less of it, in any case, thanks to technological progress, which is, in principle, unlimited. Economic growth, equitably shared, will make possible leisure and abundance for all.

It’s not yet certain that this honorable socialist vision will have to be abandoned. But it’s looking increasingly likely. Lasch was one of the first to face that prospect and look unflinchingly at the consequences. The only possible futures, he thought, were: 1) ecological catastrophe; 2) a domestic and international caste system, with extreme and permanent inequality, harshly enforced; or 3) voluntary renunciation of universal material abundance as our goal and of mass production and centralized authority as the means. Obviously, only the last is even potentially a democratic future.

Lasch may sometimes seem, as Rich suggests, merely grumpy or nostalgic. But there’s more to him, much more. The way we live and work now threatens our capacity for autonomy, stability, and intimacy. What should we do about it? It’s possible that one day, nearly all right-thinking people will be asking this question and will be grateful to Lasch for having been one of the first to press it hard. Hard enough to risk alienating even potential allies like Rorty and Rich.


Aaron asks, very eloquently: “What is to be done?” People ask Chomsky this constantly, and his answer is always the same: “Give me a break. I talk to people in the Third World all the time, and they never ask, what should we do?' Instead they say,this is what we’re doing – what do you think?’ You should do what they do: talk to one another, form groups, study your problems, find other groups that share your concerns, discuss strategy and tactics, pool resources, try one thing, then another, then another. Organizing a political movement is not rocket science, or even auto repair. It just takes initiative, dedication, and perseverance. You knew that.”

Which is not to say it’s easy. I have a clerical job in Harvard’s Physical Resources Division. My boss is ex-Navy, straight-arrow, average in every way; exercised about immigrants, disgusted with all politicians, voted grudgingly for Obama. During the financial crunch last winter, he was livid. Conversations around the office, among ourselves or with visiting contractors and workmen, were frequent, bitter, and entirely in accord. Every leftist imprecation I would toss out about “the system” or “the ruling class” met with immediate, emphatic assent. And every conversation would end the same way: “But what can you do?” “Yeah, you can’t do anything.” They all had families (unlike me) and plenty of bills; and as Rich has pointed out about other workers, their jobs (full-time, unlike mine) left them very little spare time and energy. But with minor exceptions, they all knew perfectly well what should be done: higher taxes on the rich, campaign reform, national health insurance, less defense spending, fix the schools and the highways, kill all the lobbyists.

What should I have told them? Read Chomsky and Naomi Klein? Form neighborhood or online discussion groups? Send money to or Corporate Watch? But they have no time to read, no energy to discuss, no money to send. Multiply them by a hundred million and the result is: no democracy.

Suggestions welcome.


Russell asks another fundamental question: “How Will Intellectuals Eat?” Independent intellectuals have always depended on conversations, lectures, seminars, libraries, museums, bookstores, newsstands, cafés, small publishers, little magazines, cheap apartments, and easy movement into and out of part-time jobs, preferably on the fringes of culture or academe. In other words, cities. In return, they supplied the civilization in “bourgeois civilization.”

Capitalist rationality is not synonymous with bourgeois civilization; on the contrary, it is the chief subverter of bourgeois civilization. By its inflexible logic, the material prerequisites of intellectual life were economically irrational. Inexpensive urban neighborhoods, small-scale enterprises, relaxed personnel policies all succumbed to the same polite, deadly formula: “We’re sorry, but nowadays investors expect a higher rate of return.” In an earlier example of industry consolidation, Nixon’s delightful Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, helpfully advised small farmers and ranchers: “Get big or get out.” They got out, and American food is now, by and large, mass-produced dreck. Will the same thing happen to American culture?
There are symptoms: the difficulty of getting non-blockbusters published, promoted, and kept in print; the pressure of bookstore chains on independents; the vast wasteland of Clear Channel radio; the metastasis of the Murdoch media empire. There are also exceptions, of course. There are always exceptions to trends before they become accomplished facts, as a great many people were eager to remind Russell when The Last Intellectuals appeared. But in general, I think Russell’s formulation here is spot-on: for nearly everyone, “the choice is to join an institution or die on the vine.”

Some institutions are more benign than others, to be sure. Universities are still, to some extent, havens in a heartless, spiritless world. But the extent is dwindling. Whatever the scholarly credentials of their presidents may be, universities are now run as businesses, by people who embrace managerialist ideology. Students are customers; trustees are mostly lawyers and businessmen; administrators are professionals rather than professors doing community service; donors are assiduously cultivated and (when it can be done without scandal) truckled to; and professors are encouraged, gently or forcefully, to become entrepreneurs, bringing in big grants of which the university takes its slice. As editors in publishing houses now consult the marketing division, deans consult the development office. Above all, first and last, costs must be cut and the workforce disciplined. There go those comfy, undemanding, dead-end jobs that once supported writers, painters, musicians, and other misfits.
Will the Web save the situation? Certainly, many misfits thrive here. A few, like our Scott, even make a living here. But Scott (like Edmund Wilson) may be sui generis – at any rate, he’s not a child of the Web. He’s a print man in a cyber-world. Every Wednesday, after reading his column, I chant: “Two, three, many McLemees!” But I’m not holding my breath.

About the Web generally, I’m of divided mind. Politically, I’m optimistic. The Web could be just the thing for vanquishing anomie and enabling public conversation. Democracy, after all, simply is continuous conversation. (Though as Rich has reminded us, screen-to-screen relations can only supplement, not replace, face-to-face relations.)

Culturally, I’m pessimistic. Like Rich (I’m sure the epithet “bloviator of Hindenburg-like proportions” was meant affectionately), I’m an ardent fan of Sven Birkerts. As I say in the book’s final essay, I agree with Birkerts that cyberculture is not promoting general literacy – at least, the real article – but instead bypassing it. Life on the screen alters our psychic metabolism; Birkerts’ phenomenology of this process is unsurpassed. Depth and stillness are less prized; speed and horizontal connectivity are all-conquering. This is not good for intellect; ergo, not good for intellectuals.


Henry is right, of course, that “we need more … intellectuals who understand the technical underpinnings of the existing consensus well enough to operate with them,” who have “at least a nodding acquaintance with the technical vocabularies that underpin” dominant ideologies. I yield to no one in my admiration for Bowles and Gintis, along with the entire cohort of radical economists with whom they emerged thirty years ago. I tip my cap to Dani Rodrick for grappling conscientiously with trade theory; to Ian Shapiro for patiently demystifying rational choice theory; to Joseph Stiglitz for demonstrating that the usual “simplifying” assumptions about market exchange oversimplify drastically; to Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers for sifting through mountains of data on voting behavior and political contributions and formulating their “investment theory of elections,” one of the few genuine achievements of political science; to Chris Mooney and David Michaels for thoroughly documenting the corrupt pseudo-science with which industry frequently delays or defeats regulation. All of the above, like Chomsky, Stone, and Nader, are the kind of “new public intellectuals,” combining expertise with civic spirit, about whom I made wistful noises in the title essay.

All I meant to say is, let’s be clear about the obstacles. I’m afraid I muddied the waters by complaining that it’s hard for literary intellectuals to learn economic theory. Literary intellectuals don’t really need to learn economic theory. Plenty of graduate students and junior faculty members already understand economic theory well enough to “mount a quite devastating internal critique of the more ideologically loaded forms of economic thinking” and to “show that right-wing arguments often fail on their own terms.” The question is, why are their views marginal? Why is Econ 101 dominated by pro-business simplifications rather than populist ones? Why do the media overwhelmingly prefer to quote pro-business economists rather than Doug Henwood or others with a bad attitude? Why are Lawrence Summers and Robert Rubin at Obama’s elbow rather than Joseph Stiglitz and George Soros?
I think it’s less because left academics haven’t learned to speak with a public voice or because left public intellectuals haven’t mastered the technicalities than because (to simplify a little – see Chomsky and Herman’s Manufacturing Consent for the full monty) there are ideological filters of varying diameters at every stage in the formation of public opinion. The levers of social power – investment and job creation, media ownership, technical research, public relations, campaign finance, the revolving door into and out of government, etc. – are in the hands of business as a class, and they use them. (For a crucial example, see Invisible Hands, a fine recent study by historian Kim Phillips-Fein, which shows how a number of business organizations, angered by the New Deal, pretty much ordered up a movement – the New Right – that has succeeded in rolling much of it back.)

There is nothing surprising about this. Now as always, whoever pays the piper (professor, politician, policymaker) calls the tune. Not every single note, of course, but the overall concert program. If you don’t like it, you can always start your own orchestra.


Scott, acknowledging these grim truths, nevertheless asks where we might “find the home address of any counteracting tendencies,” might locate “some reserve of values, commitments, influences, inspirations, ideas, ideals, superego energies, etc” that would “nourish the critical intelligence and allow it to sustain itself.” In other words, whence cometh our hope?

Well, Chomsky, Rorty, and Lasch would certainly have different answers to that question. Chomsky would say that a certain irreducible minimum of creativity and self-expression is hard-wired into us. We require freedom in order to attain selfhood in exactly the same way our bodily organs (including language) require a proper internal (or linguistic) environment in order to attain mature form.

Rorty would not deny, I think, that our biological endowment predisposes us to the exercise of freedom and self-determination. But he struck a different balance than Chomsky between biology and culture, between drive and socialization. Human nature is stubborn, no doubt, but not immutable or unconquerable. Even if it requires tinkering with our genetic program, social control can ultimately, for good or evil, get “all the way down.” Which is why he acknowledged that his was “an ungrounded hope.”

Lasch, for all his severity, talked constantly about hope. What he meant by it remains tantalizingly obscure. He sometimes referred to it as “trust in life,” or in “Being.” Here is his fullest definition, from True and Only Heaven (pp. 80-1):

Hope does not demand a belief in progress. It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicked will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity. Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to those who lack it. It rests on confidence not so much in the future as in the past. It derives from early memories – no doubt distorted, overlaid with later memories, and thus not wholly reliable as a guide to any factual reconstruction of past events – in which the experience of order and contentment was so intense that subsequent disillusionments cannot dislodge it. Such experience leaves as its residue the unshakable conviction, not that the past was better than the present, but that trust is never completely misplaced, even though it is never completely justified either and therefore destined inevitably to disappointments.

I’m not sure I understand this, but I find it more illuminating than many things I do understand.

What keeps me going? I suppose it’s simple gratitude toward a few (doubtless idealized) exemplars of moral beauty. I worship the ground John Stuart Mill and George Eliot walked on and dread above all things writing a sentence that would have displeased either of them. And even on the brink of despair, the last sentence of Middlemarch has always seemed sufficient reason to stagger onward:

… for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Perhaps she wouldn’t mind my adding “and wrote now-unread book reviews.”.

Beyond that, I’m not sure my own career, or version thereof, is particularly instructive. For one thing, my family was poor, so not having a middle-class lifestyle has never seemed quite so much of a sacrifice as it might have to others. For another thing, I never wanted children, knowing quite well that I was too fragile and unstable. Finally, I had a decade-long emotional collapse after leaving Opus Dei, which altered my career plans a good deal. Fortunately, my bewildered working-class family, the supportive 1970s Cambridge counterculture, and the comparatively generous pre-Reagan economy and welfare state kept me afloat. In a fully rationalized society and maximally efficient economy, I would have been toast. If anything about this twisted path seems to point the way for aspiring public intellectuals today, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Thanks to the symposiasts who prompted these reflections, and a hearty “you’re welcome” to all readers who find anything useful in them.



Russell Arben Fox 08.06.09 at 12:06 pm

George, these are brilliant, thought-stuffed responses; it will take me a day or more of thinking to process them, assuming I have the time. Thanks for capping off this gift of symposium with such a performance.

One comment, in regards to your summary of Lasch’s diagnosis of the modern liberal capitalist trajectory (which I basically agree with):

The only possible futures, he thought, were: 1) ecological catastrophe;

Depending on which petrochemical engineer or economist you choose to believe, peak oil may have already gotten us there (assuming global warming hasn’t).

2) a domestic and international caste system, with extreme and permanent inequality, harshly enforced;

Again, depending on what you imagine said caste system to include or exclude (do you believe the meritocracy is a contributor to it, or a way out of it?), we’re already there, and arguably have been since the late 1970s.

or 3) voluntary renunciation of universal material abundance as our goal and of mass production and centralized authority as the means. Obviously, only the last is even potentially a democratic future.

There is a movement towards simplicity out there, and it is even possible that some progressive accomplishments (secure, guaranteed health care, anyone?) might make it a more viable option for the great masses of people whose life aspirations–when not deluded by an unregulated consumer economy that pummels them with distracting, dishonest, competitive messages–could be pretty well summed up by the wonderful, family-centered ideal (or idyll?) of Lasch’s you quote above. But simplicity has its enemies, on the left as well as the right.


Aaron Swartz 08.06.09 at 12:10 pm

George admirably shows here why he is such a marvel. Six essays of incredibly-varying temperament and style, and he deals with them in a patient and consistent tone that is his usual model of clarity and justice.

What I was trying to say — apparently not very clearly — was that there exists a path between his boss’s apathy and Chomsky’s idealism. I think the first task is one for the intellectual, which is why I raised it here: designing a political program that can gain wide assent. George has often averred that he’s simply a counterpuncher; the great works are already written, his job is merely to direct people to them. I’m not convinced that’s true — I think the clear articulation and stirring defense of a post-New Deal socialist program has yet to be written and someone ought to write it.

The second task is one for the sociologist: designing effective systems of change in which the average person can meaningfully participate. Apparently this is easier in the Third World — perhaps the problems are more blatant, the solutions more conceivable — but in the US it’s very tricky. Every strategy seems either impossible, or a waste of time, or (usually) both. My reading of the situation (and I was pleased to see that a great sociologist like Domhoff came to largely similar conclusions) is that the best opening is for people to work together to get left Congressional candidates elected. In particular, new technologies and Internet organizing have demonstrated that the left can actually pick up seats in this country. And, as the Obama campaign showed, electoral politics is a clear way to get lots of people pulled into political action by bits and pieces.

There is much more to do on both these fronts; I suspect they will be the causes of my life. I just hope that intellectuals are good for them.


Aaron Swartz 08.06.09 at 12:33 pm

to Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers for sifting through mountains of data on voting behavior and political contributions and formulating their “investment theory of elections,”

I am sad to say it, but I find Domhoff’s critique of Ferguson and Rogers to be convincing. (They both still strike me as impressive figures; Rogers even more so after I saw him talk at HKS the other month — he simply blew me away.) I am not sure why Domhoff seems so ignored; he does amazing and convincing work, yet I’ve never heard him mentioned. For those who want an introduction, his website contains web page versions of much of his work; his text Who Rules America? (a handsome new Obama edition came out just the other week) provides a (very) concise overview.

His critique of Ferguson and Rogers appears as “Which Fat Cats Support Democrats?” in chapter 9 of The Power Elite and the State — the gist is that their empirical evidence is off (there’s no clear correlation between industry and party (a claim oddly bolstered with a phone call to Robert Rubin!)) and their theoretical underpinning is unnecessary (the parties don’t need to have strong ideologies because policy is shaped by outside industry). The other thing from the standard Chomsky model he critiques is the notion that the media has an independent influence on public opinion; he argues instead that the media is basically open to be manipulated by anyone, activists or corporations, and that it tends to have a corporate slant just because corporations are so dedicated at manipulating it. (It’s not clear that Chomsky and Herman disagree — Chomsky’s always been adverse to theorizing on the subject and much of Herman’s propaganda model lines up with this analysis.) I’d be curious if anyone knows of a response to these arguments, but I currently find them convincing.


Ophelia Benson 08.06.09 at 6:02 pm

George, I emailed you a couple of weeks ago to thank you for my copy – just wanted to make sure you knew that!


geo (aka George Scialabba) 08.06.09 at 6:40 pm

Yes, I got your message. I’ve spent the last two weeks shopping for a ring.


Ophelia Benson 08.06.09 at 6:44 pm

Ah, splendid. I’m partial to rubies.


Yeselson 08.06.09 at 11:49 pm

George, thanks for your acute and gracious remarks. Here’s what I’d say about Lasch one more time thru:

1. Yes, I certainly read his avowal in your book–and his book, too–that he “had no wish to return to the past….” To paraphrase Bob Dylan, I don’t believe him. He wrote those remarks even before The True and Only Heaven. I don’t even think I believed them at the time he wrote them–and that he felt compelled to write them surely indicated that a great many readers thought that Lasch’s arguments were not nearly as lucid as he thought them to be. But after TTAOH, there’s certainly a lot of evidence against Lasch’s representation of Lasch, i.e. thousands of words Lasch himself wrote. He kind of gives authorial intentionality a bad name.

2. I am not so cavalier about Lasch’s indictment of modernity as to say, in effect, “what so bad about that”? I would more precisely say that Lasch’s argument suffers from (at least) three grave flaws. First, life was really very bad for all kinds of subjugated, subaltern people, principally women and african americans, during the halcyon pre-modern days he depicts. He tries to address this, but inadequately, in my view. Second, he just doesn’t give modernity much credit for anything, yet he’d ardently argues on behalf of redistributing all of its material benefits acknowledges–to the poor and the working class. When Lasch was dying of cancer, one of modernity’s exemplary expressions, the personal computer, enabled him to finish his final book. Enormous, multi-national companies make computers–Dell, Apple, HP. Sometimes small companies make them for a little while–but, yes, in our modern world, the big companies eventually eat them like sharks feasting on carefree swimmers. Artisanal production is, today, a luxury of the rich for the rich–I, not of the rich, am not counting on the artisans to help me write these observations. Thank goodness that many many more of us–not enough of us, but a great many of us–can afford the coldly, mass produced products that have made Mr. Jobs and Mr. Dell obscenely rich. Similarly, Stephen Holmes, in his definitive evisceration of the TTAOH reprinted in his The Anatomy of Liberalism, facetiously wondered whether Lasch had written the book with his thermostat set at 55 degrees. Lasch somehow thinks, that in the name of a greater sense of self and stronger connection to one’s productive capabilities, you can mitigate the great productive power of capitalism–but yet have plenty that will be left over to expropriate from the expropriators. It doesn’t work that way–dividing up *less* leads not to serenely making your own buttermilk, but to fascism.

Alas, that’s modernity, too. As is having the glorious right, by virtue of being a distinguished professor at distinguished university, to be a cranky anti-modernist without anybody telling you what to write or what to think. It’s pretty much JS Mill 101 that the most effective polemics are those that confront the strongest arguments of one’s strongest interlocutors. Lasch doesn’t. He assembles a lot of supporters for his reading of history and culture in TTAOH, but precious few dissenters who might give him a hard time. Finally, Lasch’s idea of the good life–both today and in the past–is predicated on a homogeneous community. He explictly supports ethnic homogeneity at a few points–I don’t have a text in front of me right now, but he does. Yes, this is quite anti-modern, and, no, I don’t think this is a good thing. I have spent a fair amount of time in places that have wonderful senses of community, but people in those communities have a lot of difficulty with those who are “other” to the community. Sometimes, they get over that difficulty on a case by case basis. Sometimes, broader lessons are learned, and, strangely, these are exactly the kinds of situations about which Lasch is not only pessimistic, but about which he seems to be opposed! I’d be happy to keep Lasch’s sense of community, but add to it the modern sense of not only tolerance, but, hey, even indifference to “otherness.” But I’ve seen this happen, too–people from different races, ethnicities, men and women, gay and straight, getting together and *forming* a community in the hopes of organizing a union or maintaining one. In short, let’s hear a word for heterogeneous communities. I don’t think homogeneous communities are so great–at the extremes you get people who want to kill the other, at the more mundane level, you just get a good deal of soul crushing boredom. No doubt if Lasch had lived in such a community, he would have run for the hills.

Finally, I still think you’re too kind to Lasch about Boston, George. I think he conceded the racism there as a rhetorical strategy, effectively writing, “yes, they were racist, but….” Sorry: They were grotesquely racist. They were other things too, just like the white South was other things. But first: They were grotesquely racist.
That was the necessary glue which held together the anti-busing coalition in Southie and Charlestown. And the court didn’t have a choice. Those bankers and lawyers had to restrict busing to the boundaries of the city. Milliken v. Bradley effectively limited school integration schemes within district lines–those bankers and lawyers couldn’t have their kids schools in Newton and Belmont be part of the plan. It wasn’t attitudinal–or maybe it was, but that was beside the point–it was the law.


Yeselson 08.07.09 at 12:10 am

That screwy sentence in the second graf that begins, “Second….”, should read:

Second, he just doesn’t give modernity much credit for anything, yet he’d ardently argues on behalf of redistributing all of its material benefits to the poor and the working class.


geo 08.07.09 at 4:18 am


Why just “one more time”? Thanks to the wonders of modern technology (and the hospitality of Crooked Timber), we have unlimited space and time. Let’s thrash out these questions for good and all.

Modernity has bestowed great gifts: productivity, mobility, comfort, safety, publicity, tolerance. There is no need to dwell on these benefits, for the simple reason that outside the Vatican (and perhaps the holy city of Qom), no one denies them. But these benefits have come with a price, as benefits usually do. Productivity has a cost in finite resources, and the organization of mass production has a cost in work satisfaction. Mobility has a cost in community cohesion, which may in turn undermine individual psychic stability. Comfort, if pursued to the exclusion of all strenuousness, has a cost in health. Publicity has a cost in privacy and freedom from distractions. Safety has (or may have) a cost in self-reliance. Tolerance may have a cost in self-control.

Lasch devoted most of his career to expounding these real and potential costs. I think it was well worth doing. Did he deny, crankily and undialectically, the corresponding benefits? Well, he didn’t exactly dwell on them. But to suggest that he deplored air and auto travel, X-rays, antiseptic surgery, central heating, movies, mass-produced pianos and books, civil-rights legislation, and all the other blessings of modernity — or ought to have deplored these things, and even forsworn them, if he had understood the logic of his own position — strikes me as outlandish. He didn’t reject science, technology, and progress en bloc.

But even if he had, what would follow? That he had encumbered his argument with an absurd and unnecessary corollary. Correctly estimating the dangers of modernity need not entail underestimating the achievements of modernity. If Lasch made that mistake, so much the worse for him. But his diagnosis and etiology remain, to be judged on their own terms. Mass anomie and narcissism are no less harmful merely because giving up the way of life that has produced them may produce even worse consequences. The questions remain: Do the causes Lasch identified have the effects he described? If so, then what, if anything, should we do about it?

PS – More anon, perhaps, about busing and Stephen Holmes. For now, to bed.


John Quiggin 08.07.09 at 5:07 am

It seems to me that if there is a distinction to be made between inevitable costs of modernity and those that are real, but contingent. For example, it’s hard to see how you can benefit from social provision of safety without sacrificing self-reliance. On the other hand, while it’s easy to see that modernity tends to produce anomie and narcissism, it seems reasonable to say that we may be able to avoid or mitigate these consequences if we tried hard.

A social critic who prods us on the second kind of point is doing a valuable service. One who complains about the first, or fails to distinguish the two, is essentially cranky.


Henri Vieuxtemps 08.07.09 at 7:17 am

I haven’t read Lasch, but I feel that the biggest complaint should be about alienation caused by high degree of division of labor, famously caricatured in Chaplin’s Modern Times. And yet this is (seems to be) an inevitable cost of modernity. Still, even if it can’t be avoided altogether, surely we could try to mitigate it?


Lee A. Arnold 08.08.09 at 3:33 am

George your book is terrific. It captures an entire period and it can be recommended to anyone.

I have little time to write and anyway the excellence of George’s prose shames my efforts. But I really disagree on any questioning of activism and I would caution George who said in another thread he’s saddened by recent events.

We the people have to keep fighting. We are arriving at another critical point — and this time we the people hold most of the cards. The powers of greed know it’s a fight, and know that free ideas are dangerous. They know that if it gets quiet, it makes it easier for them to win.

Indeed they are looking for tactical relief, because they are currently running out of propagandist ammunition. Economics is running aground on non-computability, non-prediction issues, and economists will find it an increasing trouble to avoid a study of institutions, which are a non-rival sort of good. I think that a full study of institutions will argue for a much more egalitarian society, and that this can be communicated successfully to any adult.

The recent ascendancy of the Right since Reagan is by contrast a mere passage, made by the strategy of a wealthy elite that caught the rest of us unawares and without a way to talk back to the onslaught. It doesn’t have much to say to the future, except to illustrate that one-way mass media was a controllable thing until the internet blew it out of the water — and also that it was possible for the plutocracy’s op-ed punditry to promote one-equation economics to the level of gospel truth, happily coinciding with their propaganda’s need for intellectual, theoretical justifications to sound important and scientific.

On the question of the outer shape of the current disease, I agree I think with John Quiggin: Modernity is not a single behemoth. In other words, It, as a single entity, isn’t really doing anything. It is a collection of many contexts, and they are all going in at least slightly different directions. Life is salutary, pure, nifty, beautish, if still short.

But anti-modernist tracts such as Lasch (and thank you George for pointing out Lawrence) are important to read, they are in fact very instructive and we need more comparative analyses, because each separate complaint always connects in some way with a cognitive failure in ratiocination (also known as instrumental reason) and a formal typology of these failures is one of the next things to construct.

I think the Enlightenment epistemology is dual, and what we have seen for 350 years is a development of only one part of it, i.e. mathematical science and the ratiocinative attitude, and the floundering rehearsal of the other part of it in the long Romantic reaction. We are in another late stage of the Romantic reaction now.

But if the cognitive failures of rationality can be unified as a simple idea, using connecting concepts from science, philosophy, and theory, and using the opportunities for instruction presented by the problems of predicting complex ecosystems and the failures of economics, it can become a public argument for the use of transparent, accountable, democratic institutions, and we could actually fix some problems.

Comments on this entry are closed.