Shocks of Recognition

May 1991By Edward R.F. Sheehan

Edward R.F. Sheehan, former Fellow of the Center for International Affairs at Harvard, is the author of several works of fiction and nonfiction, and a contributor to such publications as The New York Review of Books and The New York Times.

The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics.  By Christopher Lasch. Norton. 591 pages. $25.00.

When the first chapter of this book, “The Obsolescence of Left and Right,” appeared in the New Oxford Review in April 1989, I remarked to friends that it was perhaps the most incisive essay of its kind I had ever read. It seemed to me that Christopher Lasch had cut through much of the cant and mythology of present national discourse and exposed the fatuity of American politics on either side of the spectrum. Both the Left and the Right, he argued, had failed to address our true needs or even to recognize our deepest problems. The liberals’ belief in the perfectibility of society reposed on the false optimism of social engineering and has resulted in a culture that has lost its moral moorings. The conservatism of the Reaganites was not authentic conservatism at all but a vulgar consecration of greed that made unlimited growth of business and consumption the goal of human culture. In fact, the goals of Left and Right did not really differ, only the politics to achieve them. Both ideologies presupposed unfettered economic progress and consumption in a world of shrinking resources, increasing poverty, and encroaching ecological chaos.

The True and Only Heaven is an erudite polemic that seeks to distinguish the philosophies of optimism from the essence of hope, and that questions the very ideal of “progress” itself. Indeed, it bemuses Lasch that serious people can continue to believe in progress in the face of all the contrary horrifying evidence of our century. He gazes back to the 18th century, “when the founders of modern liberalism began to argue that human wants, being insatiable, required an indefinite expansion of the productive sources necessary to satisfy them. Insatiable desire...came to be seen as a powerful stimulus to economic development…. There was no foreseeable end to the transformation of luxuries into necessities.”

Yet, the cult of progress has been questioned by a succession of thinkers — Carlyle, Emerson, William lames, Niebuhr, among others — who in various ways emphasized limitation as the law of life. Lasch grasps this sense of limits as “the unifying thread” of his book and explores it “to reconstruct not so much an intellectual tradition as a sensibility” that opposes prevailing wisdom yet still exerts “considerable force.”

Thus he immerses us in a narrative that for hundreds of pagees is almost straight intellectual history. The learning is dazzling but the pages are dense, rarely leavened by irony or wit, and in sum they lack the cogency of his Culture of Narcissism. Lasch is always interesting — his evocations of Burke, Emerson, James, and Keynes, for example, are stimulating — but in its zeal to encompass, the book seems too long by almost half.

Sidney Blumenthal has accused Lasch of being “cranky.” On the contrary, Lasch is at his best when he is opinionated, for that is when we most experience shocks of recognition and can benefit from his epiphanies, such as: “The idea of progress alone, we are told, can move men and women to sacrifice immediate pleasures to some larger purpose. On the contrary, progressive ideology weakens the spirit of sacrifice. Nor does it give us an effective antidote to despair, even though it owes much of its residual appeal to the fear that its collapse would leave us utterly without hope. 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…rests on confidence not so much in the future as in the past. It derives from early memories….”

Lasch draws great comfort from Carlyle’s exaltation of historical memory and his insistence that “nothing is lost” — that the “sum-total of the whole Past” lives on in the present. He blends Carlyle’s insights with those of Niebuhr, who like Barth grew disenchanted with liberal theology and reaffirmed original sin as an “inescapable fact of human existence.” With Niebuhr one can distinguish hope from foolish optimism or “sentimentality” by recognizing that evil, and thereby sin, have lives of their own and cannot be rationalized by attributing them to simple ignorance or “cultural lag.” Like Niebuhr, Lasch seems to consider prophetic Christianity as a coherent account of history and the human condition, superior to other accounts because it equates hope with a state of grace and God’s redemption of the world.

Lasch’s contemplation of philosophers and theologians merges with his analysis of social critics such as Walter Lippmann and H.L. Mencken. Mencken despised democracy as the reign of “boobs” and encouraged intellectuals to consider themselves a caste apart, as much in contempt of the surrounding culture as they should be devoted to changing it. From the 1920s onward the liberal intellectuals became more and more devoted to social engineering, animated by a secular, agnostic faith in progress increasingly characterized, by doctrines of unlimited consumption, self-indulgence, and sexual license. When unable to enact their theories through legislation, they often did so through the courts. The educated elites despised the ignorant and lower classes for their backward belief in sin, the patriarchal family, and the traditional constraints of morals and religion; only the enlightened elites could be trusted as guardians of democracy and the public conscience: “Blind to their own prejudices, the children of light could not see that their own world was…as narrowly circumscribed as the worker’s…. Their travels took them around the globe, but the internationalization of the professional and managerial mode of life meant that they encountered the same kind of people…everywhere they went…. Education gave them vicarious access to the world’s culture, but their acquaintance with that culture was increasingly fragmentary…. Their educated jargon had lost touch with everyday spoken language and no longer served as a repository of the community’s common sense…. By reformulating [their own] values as psychological norms, the professional-managerial class made it possible to dismiss dissent from the educated consensus as evidence of emotional and cultural backwardness.”

Lasch moves immediately from academe (which he knows all too well) to Camelot and the legend of John F. Kennedy. He identifies that legend as the embodiment of “civilized” liberalism, then picks it apart and holds up an empty shell. Since Kennedy’s political accomplishments were so meager, it remained to his heirs to sing dirges to thwarted promise and to the might-have-beens had Kennedy lived to pursue the visions attributed to him by his minions. To Lasch, the endless incantations of Kennedy’s “style” were rooted not only in his lack of substance but in the veneration of a false prophet. “Those who idolized Kennedy, deceived by the glamour of the White House, confused heroism with celebrity.”

Kennedy, in Lasch’s eyes, represented a cosmopolitan distortion of an earlier American vision of a self-governing republic based on limits, non-imperial in character but a beacon to mankind. For the New Frontier, that earlier ideal was too modest and too provincial. Rather, the New Frontier enshrined “a civilized, forward-looking minority over popular backwardness, and the legend of Camelot…enabled liberals to blame popular bigotry and ‘paranoia’ for Kennedy’s death and for all the troubles that followed, including the disastrous decline of their own influence.”

Shunning on his Left and Right the dogmas of unlimited progress and consumption, Lasch seeks a base for a plausible social doctrine not simply in philosophy but in a living populace. He finds it, he thinks, in the lower-middle class. For all of its narrowness and bigotry, the lower bourgeoisie clings to timeless values — the work ethic, the family, religious faith, the neighborhood, an entrenched sense of limits if not a tragic sense of life — long since sneered at by the “new class” of educated elites. If there is to be a renascence of common sense about the future direction of society, and a creed of hope and limits to define it, it will emerge from the perennial values of the working class and the petty bourgeoisie.

Above all this book argues that, for the good and indeed for the survival of our society, we must reconsider our assumptions about the limitless possibilities of science and consumption, and embrace a far more frugal style of life. Economic equality, so long the dream of utopians and progressives, cannot be achieved even under advanced versions of capitalism. “Equality now implies a more modest standard of living for all, not an extension of the lavish standards enjoyed by the favored classes in the industrial nations to the rest of the world. In the 21st century, equality implies a recognition of limits, both moral and material, that finds little support in the progressive tradition.”

It is not necessary to share all of Lasch’s conclusions to sympathize with his classical and theological conception of man. At times we sense that we are eavesdropping on a conversation that Lasch is having with himself, and we are perhaps more intrigued by the questions he raises than by the answer he provides. Despite our impatience with his prolixity, the total effect of his reflections is powerful. Is there another social critic abroad today whose mind is so well-nourished, whose sight extends quite so far?

As I read this book, a television set in another room blared out the latest bulletins from the U.S.-Iraq war. Lasch’s erudition seemed like contrapuntal music to our technological fireworks that — granted the provocation — destroyed the infrastructure of a Third World nation and thousands of human lives. Was the war another milestone of human progress, or a paragon of malevolent technology? As we examine what our society is and what it might become, we will need voices such as Lasch’s more than ever.

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