on March 12, 2009
To balance the fashionably leftist tilt of academia, one needs to read things written with a rightist slant. A history professor at the University of Rochester, Christopher Lasch, once himself a Marxist-oriented, progressive, socialist intellectual, testifies to both his personal convictions and his historical judgments in The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, c. 1991).
His own confidence in the reigning liberalism of the intelligentsia slipped in the 1970s, when his family studies "led me to question the left's program of sexual liberation, careers for women, and professional child care" (p. 25). Surveying the scene, all forms of "authority, including parental authority, seemed in serious decline" (p. 31), a process which inevitably undermine "the capacity for independent judgment, initiative, and self-discipline, on which democracy had always been understood to depend" (p. 31). Lasch now sees things, not as a young radical, but as a responsible adult--and, more importantly, as a parent.
"To see the modern world from the point of view of a parent is to see it in the worst possible light. This perspective unmistakably reveals the unwholesomeness . . . of our way of life: our obsession with sex, violence, and the pornography of 'making it'; our addictive dependence on drugs, 'entertainment,' and the evening news; our im¬patience with any thing that limits our sovereign freedom of choice, especially with the constraints of marital and familial ties; our preference for 'nonbinding commitments'; our third-rate educational system; our third-rate morality; our refusal to draw a distinction between right and wrong, lest we 'impose' our morality on others and thus invite others to 'impose' their morality on us; our reluctance to judge or be judged; our indifference to the needs of future generations, as evidenced by our willingness to saddle them with a huge national debt, an overgrown arsenal of destruction, and a deteriorating environment; our inhospitable attitude to the newcomers born into our midst; our unstated assumption, which underlies so much of the propaganda for unlimited abortion, that only those children born for success ought to be allowed to be born at all" (pp. 33-34). Like lots of scholars' works, this one's deeply personal!
The book's title comes from a prescient passage in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Celestial Railroad," which says: "Many passengers stop to take their pleasure or make their profit in [vanity] fair, instead of going onward to the celestial city. Indeed, such are the charms of the place that people often affirm it to be the true and only heaven; stoutly contending that there is no other, that those who seek further are mere dreamers, and that, if the fabled brightness of the celestial city lay but a bare mile beyond the gates of vanity, they would not be fools enough to go thither." In this book Lasch pursues "a deceptively simple question. How does it happen that serious people continue to believe in progress, in the face of massive evidence that might have been expected to refute the idea of progress once and for all?" (p. 13). Following a century notable for its geno¬cidal wars and ecocidal woes, why do so many political thinkers and politicians so blithely aver, in chorus with did Eleanor Roosevelt, that the "world's getting better, and better, and better"?
The reason for their optimism, Lasch thinks, is a deeply emotional, if not overtly religious, attachment to the doctrine of historical progress. Tracing the permutations of that doctrine over the course of two centuries is his quest. To do so, he first seeks to accurately define the idea of progress. With their cyclical philosophy of history, the Greeks had no notion of "progress." To Christians like St Augustine, history is linear, but it's hardly on an upward trajectory! Only in the "modern" era did the notion of historical progress clearly emerge, particularly in the economic thought of Adam Smith with its insistence that we have infinite desires for infinite goods and progress means acquiring ever more of the world's goods.
Leading intellectuals of the Enlightenment envisioned better living through commerce and industry. In David Hume's opinion, merchants are the "most useful race of men in the whole society." Tom Paine declared: "If commerce were permitted to act to the universal extent it is capable, it would extirpate the system of war, and produce a revolution in the uncivil state of governments." Romantics reacted nostalgically against it, Marxists envisioned a distant utopia emerging out of its shambles, agrarian "populists" railed against it, but the modern world still embraces deeply-inscribed Enlightenment aspirations. What¬ever adds to our collection of houses or stocks or household appliances is necessarily good.
The most insightful critics of progress, Lasch found, stood rooted in "the tradition of Christian prophecy, as reformulated by Calvin and his followers and, in the nineteenth century, by moral philosophers and social critics--notably Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson--in whom Calvinism remained a powerful background presence" (p. 227). They saw the human and environmental costs which never appeared in accountants' ledgers.
Since WWII, "the politics of the civilized minority" (an elite liberal corps which has generally secured its ends by circumventing the will of common people), has dominated America, using the courts, rather than the legislatures, to gain permissive abortion policies, for example. Yet strong protests, voices of "right-wing populism," have also cried out against it, speaking for working class Americans.
This is a long, meandering treatise on the history of ideas which at times follows a chronological pattern, then at times seems to slip and slide in accord with Lasch's prejudices and preoccupations. It contains interesting information, quotations and insights into obscure as well as noted intellectuals of the past. It helps one understand the grip "progress" has exerted during the past 200 years. And, if not persuasively de¬molishing "the true and only heaven," it certainly casts considerable doubt on the veracity its "proggessive" proponents.
on December 25, 1998
I frequently argue that the breadth of Lasch's moral vision requires a thorough reading of his ouevre, not just an individual title. That said, TRUE AND ONLY HEAVEN comes the closest to encapsulating what Lasch, as one of the last best public intellectuals, had to say. Part of HEAVEN's success in this regard is its simple length, which allows for a more comprehensive statement. More important, though, is that here finally Lasch is explicitly taking as subject what was his central obsession all along: the locomotive degradation of allegiance to the Jeffersonian ideal in a heedless process called "progress." Those accustomed to the spirited polemic of his more famous work may find themselves slowed by the more overtly scholarly nature of this one, but the payoff is big in terms of a foundation in the animating ideas of the lifework of the best cultural critic of his era. Lasch is never simple. He is always subtle, and always stoic: he makes Hawthorne and Nietszche look like playground amatuers. More importantly, his perspective is radical enough (meaning, truly alternative--almost anarchic)and his arguments innovative enough that one may finish his book and only think one has read it. A close, careful read, however, will yield a take on the malaise critical to any sort of "progress" in the discourse about the future of democracy in America.
on January 2, 2004
If this book had concerned itself with the idea of progress, the history and future of progress, that would have been quite sufficient. But no, he must historize everything, including the whole last thid of the book (really weak) where we review and empathize with just about every social cause and group on the planet.
Progress is interesting; those who criticize it use the very thing they decry to make their point. In one sense, progress does mean human enrichment. Now, to many folks this means more things. To Lasch, it should mean a better life, better citizens, more responsibility. I guess one could say it was the classic argument: Quantity vs Quality.
It goes without saying that progress brings material wealth - it always has and always will. Most of us take it for granted and even those who protested the "excesses of capitalism" at the WTO in Rome arrived by jet! Lasch laments the loss of authority in our society and this is directly related to loss of civic participation. Only one generation previous, men and women considered such things as Masons, Rotary, Optimist, and Knights of Columbus important features in society. But the silence from civic groups is deafening.
Lasch is particularly concerned about a new type of rampant individualism that has swept the nation (and the West). It is of the kind that does what it wants to do regardless of how others are affected, it does not partake in communal discussion nor social gatherings, it is a god unto itself. Societal goals are sublimated to the pursuit of pure pleasure. This condition is fatal for a society that prides itself on civic involvement and a long-standing ecumencalism in religion and politics. In the end he asks the question. "What is it all for?" That is something each of us must answer.