Volume > Issue > Diagnosing America’s Troubled Ethos & Culture

Diagnosing America’s Troubled Ethos & Culture

Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life

By Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, & Steven M. Tipton

Publisher: University of California Press

Pages: 355

Price: $16.95

Review Author: Dale Vree

Dale Vree is Editor of the NEW OXFORD REVIEW.

The academic authors of this book — the pri­mary one being sociologist Robert N. Bellah — have produced a monumental and nuanced analysis of America’s troubled ethos and culture. The book is dense and slow going, especially at first. Yet, if the measured and almost plodding cadence of the book is intentional, I can’t decide if the book ex­cels in understatement or suffers from a general lack of “bite.” But the bite is there, if only the reader has the patience to search it out. Moreover, the last chapter (“Transforming American Cul­ture”) is the pièce de résistance, where everything comes into sharp focus, and it is this chapter that should, I think, guarantee this book its monumen­tal stature.

The book is based on interviews with over 200 Americans from various middling walks of life between 1979 and 1984. This is no quantitative survey; rather, the authors describe and interpret interview responses and thereby seek to diagnose American culture. The news is not encouraging.

The book begins with profiles of four persons representing four characteristic orientations: (1) the ambitious and successful businessman, (2) the traditional and communitarian small-town conser­vative, (3) the unrooted New Class therapist, and (4) the left-wing political activist. The first and third persons are rather unabashedly self-centered and individualistic while the second and fourth are not. Yet, the authors find that all four speak the idiom of American individualism. Even the second and fourth persons have great difficulty getting be­yond this idiom, an idiom that cramps their ability to articulate the values they hold dear. Under­standably, and happily, a central purpose of this book is “to find a moral language that will tran­scend…radical individualism.”

But this is a herculean undertaking in America today because, as the authors stress, “the manager and the therapist [i.e., persons one and three] largely define the outlines of twentieth-century American culture. The social basis of that culture is the world of bureaucratic consumer capitalism…. ” That culture’s understanding of life is at odds with traditional morality — with notions of com­mitment to others and self-sacrifice. It is “generally hostile to older ideas of moral order. Its center is the autonomous individual…. ” Such a culture en­tails the extension of individualism’s “calculating managerial style” to the intimacy of home and lo­cal community, with dismal results which require no detailing here.

Presumably with an eye on those neoconser­vative analysts who have argued that our “libera­tionist” culture has been destroying the work ethic of capitalism, the authors state that they see no de­mise of the work ethic, but rather see it as being quite compatible with the self-preoccupation char­acteristic of American culture. Our authors find that the “therapeutic attitude” which issues forth in a liberationist culture actually “reinforces” the managerial/capitalist attitude that undergirds America’s economy; both mandate the maximiza­tion of self-interest.

Moreover, the therapeutic attitude — accord­ing to which all values and commitments are rela­tive and overriding “good” is self-satisfaction — ac­tually undercuts meaningful social change. While the therapeutic attitude can undergird the social welfare aspects of bureaucratic capitalism, it is powerless to see beyond welfare-capitalism. Our authors quote one therapeutically minded woman as saying, “I don’t think there are answers in life…. there are only really good dialogues.” Political action, she says, requires a firm sense of right and wrong instead of endless dialogue; therefore she “just can’t” get involved in political change.

Our authors poignantly note that the thera­peutic mentality, which “has difficulty sustaining enduring commitments between two individuals” (as between husband and wife), “has even more trouble” sustaining enduring political commit­ments. Although the authors don’t say it, I suspect the mushy relativism of the therapeutic mentality has contributed much to the current malaise of American political liberalism, as reflected both in liberalism’s inability to protect human life in the womb and in its equivocation in the face of orga­nized greed.

The authors suggest that the price of the tri­umph of the therapeutic is “moral impoverish­ment.” They assert that therapy’s “judgments of character as ‘self-esteem’ and of action as what ‘works for me now’ only dimly depict the meaning of work well done, a family well raised, and a life well lived…. ” Moreover, the authors declare that “the therapeutically inclined are wrong to think that…moral standards are inherently authoritar­ian and in the service of domination.”

Given such statements, many liberals will surely misread this book as an apologia for latter-day neoconservatism and the Moral Majority in spite of the fact that Bellah and his colleagues are quite clear that such reactive movements “deeply misunderstand tradition even when they seek to embrace it. They defend not [a living] tradition but [a dead] traditionalism…. ”

In pointing readers toward the resources of tradition and morality, our authors insist that they are not interested in sacrificing the “dignity of the individual” or “genuine individuality” in the pro­cess. Nor will they sacrifice such in their pointing toward a more communitarian, less dog-eat-dog economy.

In upholding a “genuine individuality” grounded in the authority of tradition, they cite Tocqueville to the effect that “when one can no longer rely on tradition or authority, one inevita­bly looks to others for confirmation of one’s judg­ments.” The result is, ironically, the conformist in­dividualism we see all around us. Anti-traditional individualism is itself a tradition which if taken to its logical (or absurd?) conclusion produces, in the au­thors’ judgment, the inauthentic individuality of the “empty self.”

In sharp contrast to the “empty self” — the individual who lives solely for the self — the au­thors approvingly present Cecilia Dougherty as one example of a “constituted self” (one of the few such persons they encountered in their field work). Active in the left-wing Campaign for Economic De­mocracy (CED) in Santa Monica, California, she is the daughter of an Italian immigrant mother and an Irish immigrant father deeply involved in the labor movement. She was impressed by the sense of hu­man solidarity in the labor movement and finds a similar emphasis on solidarity in her church (Ro­man Catholic), which she has expanded into her programmatic concern for “economic democracy.” The authors tell us that “she exemplifies a form of individualism that is fulfilled in community rather than against it. Conformism…does not seem to be a problem for Cecilia…. ” Her life of multiple commitments to her heritage, her church, and CED makes her “able to resist pressures to conform.”

Our authors see such a life of commitment as yielding a truly fulfilling private life (they might well have cited St. Francis: it is in giving that we receive), and conversely, such a truly rewarding pri­vate life “is one of the preconditions for a healthy public life.”

As sympathetic as the authors are to the CED, they note painfully that as its program is articulat­ed by other proponents, it lacks “a moral basis.” Paradoxically, while CED proponents may act in very moral ways in their concern for the social un­derdog, the relativistic secular language they often employ to justify their actions “cannot account for” their moral commitments. Hence, the authors keep bringing us back to the necessity for that very old-fashioned and unfashionable concept, “virtue among the people” (or as Tocqueville phrased it, the “habits of the heart”).

In their last chapter, the authors articulate a strategy for “reversing” modernity’s erosion of vir­tue and authentic culture. Our “cardinal sin,” they tell us, is that “we have put our own good, as indi­viduals, as groups, as a nation, ahead of the com­mon good.” The “litmus test” for social renewal revolves around “the problem of wealth and pover­ty.” They unabashedly tell us that the Hebrew prophets and Jesus identified with the “poor and oppressed,” and that both Old and New Testa­ments “make it clear that societies sharply divided between rich and poor are not in accord with the will of God.”

Lest one fear that their talk of rectifying America’s gross forms of social inequality leads di­rectly to the Leviathan state, the authors tell us that if social renewal were to come only from state initiative, “it would be tyrannical.” Hence, “per­sonal transformation among large numbers is essen­tial…. ” But political and economic changes are simultaneously required, entailing a change in “the climate in which business operates so as to encourage new initiatives in economic democracy and so­cial responsibility, whether from ‘private’ enter­prise or autonomous small — and middle-scale public enterprises.” (At this point, they approvingly cite “recent Catholic social teaching” and Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Laborem Exercens in particu­lar.)

By “economic democracy” they mean enabl­ing workers to have an “effective voice” in how their enterprises are run. By “social responsibility” they mean, among other things, “a reappropriation of the idea of vocation or calling, a return in a new way to the idea of work as a contribution to the good of all and not merely as a means to one’s own advancement.” (On work as a calling, see Bellah’s article “Economics & the Theology of Work” in the Nov. 1984 NOR.)

These changes — both personal and social — add up to “a deep…transformation,” going well beyond the tinkering imaginations of today’s liber­als and conservatives. It is a transformation requir­ing the coupling of “social concern with ultimate concern.”

Bellah and his colleagues movingly end with a gentle yet profound call to conversion: “Perhaps common worship…is the most important thing of all. If so, we will have to change our lives…. We will need to remember that…we owe what we are to…‘the structure of grace in history.’” To which I can only respond, “Amen.”


©1985 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

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