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Himmelfarb's Democratic Cures
on April 17, 2001
"One Nation, Two Cultures" is the best work of cultural criticism and political philosophy by a social conservative in recent years. Himmelfarb argues that pathologies which resulted from the cultural revolutions of the 1960's may be cured by reinvigorated democratic institutions; civil society, the family, and religion. The thesis is not original, but the cogency of Himmelfarb's analysis, her historical insight, and her thoughtful meditation on the two cultures which now exist in the country make her book worthwhile. Those cultures are an elite, permisive and non-judgemental culture and a dissident, moral culture composed almost wholly of people who are religious.
Himmelfarb's analysis of the democratic institutions which might remedy the moral disorder she describes is cogent. She develops a typology of civil society proponents and prefers hard advocates to soft; she echoes Schumpeter's analysis of the decline of the family, and she analyzes religion's positive effects on citizen's morality thoroughly.
Himmelfarb is a historian. Her book consequently has a depth which is lacking in the policy writings of conservative scholars. Civil society, liberals and conservatives agree, needs strenghtening. But did you now that, as she points out, civil society was not in our political vocabulary until the 1980's?
Himmelfarb's meditation on the two cultures which have developed because of the cultural revolutions is similarly thoughtful. For instance, she notes that the gap between elites who are non-judgemental, permissive, and post-modern and a dissident, moral, culture which cuts across class and racial lines is not static. "Elites may provoke a reaction on the part of many who otherwise acquiesce in the values of a domination culture, (but) pushing the envelope may also have the contrary effect of inuring people to such excesses."
Criticisms of Himmelfarb may focus on her writings' ideology or its persuasiveness. Judging whether she comes out on the correct side, politically, on issues like single mother-hood is not simply a matter of comparing your beliefs with hers, but it is mostly that.
I take her least persuasive argument to be that we should legislate morality because we are constantly doing just that. First, the scope of her argument is greater than the evidence she provides--the civil rights legislation of the 1960's, the welfare system's subsidies for out-of-wedlock births, and no-fault divorce laws. Many laws outside the field of civil rights and family laws or can be neutral on questions of morality.
Second, only in the first case is there any real proof that morality has been legislated. Out-of-wedlock births are practical now, as a result of subsidies, but not regularly condoned by communites. No-fault divorce laws have not legitimated divorce, women who are divorcees have come to constitute a sizeable group with its own morality.
Finally, Himmelfarb's argument is most flawed in that it contradicts the unstated premise of Himmelfarb's book, which is that social disorders can be cured by democratic institutions and, without the state's involvement. Civil society can be a hard authoritaive collection of individiuals, families can be rebuilty without the state's intervention, and religion can be a guardian of mores, all without the use of the state by social conservatives.
Moreover, social conservatives will not succeed in creating allies in the culture war if legislating morality becomes their primary tactic. While there is no explict reason that they create allies, Himmelfarb's title seems to suggest that conservatives are not pleased with their dissident status.