In this final book of his splendid career, Christopher Lasch seeks to answer two questions, one that is increasingly heard in political debate, the other still too subversive for consideration in polite society. The first is “What’s wrong with America?”—an issue not too far removed from the “Condition of England” so lengthily debated by Disraeli and many other Victorians. Closely related to this is the question “Can democracy survive?”—a natural corollary to the first topic, given the fundamental role played by democratic ideology in every phase of the nation’s history.
Lasch identifies a familiar roster of American problems and crises, including urban decay, media sensationalism, the decline of traditional community loyalties, the deterioration of public spaces, and the collapse of popular interest or involvement in the political process. Thus far, the book might seem to resemble a hundred other counterparts over the last quarter of a century, ritual contrasts of the heartless and soulless present with the imagined communal past, with obligatory jibes at the liberal elites, Spiro’s “nattering nabobs of negativism,” and at modern faddism. Of course, given the author, this is not at all what we find. Lasch indeed enumerates the symptoms of cultural decay, but then proceeds to analyze them in a manner that is both novel and thought-provoking.
Lasch takes as his point of departure The Revolt of the Masses, in which Ortega y Gasset argued that the rise of mass politics posed a terminal threat to democratic practice, which had evolved within the more stately republican models of the I8th and 19th centuries. Not at all, says Lasch. In fact, the real threat in contemporary America arises not from the masses but from the elites, who have so detached themselves from the common beliefs and mores of the wider community as to have become thoroughly deracinated. They are “far more cosmopolitan, or at least more restless and migratory, than their predecessors.” Their own beliefs are defined in contrast to a nightmare Middle America of the spirit, an imaginary land of Babbittry, “technologically backward, politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middlebrow in its tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy.” We are everything They are not. Though Lasch does not cite this particular example, the contrast is nicely epitomized by virtually every cartoon published in the last five years on the subject of guns and private gun ownership. The vicious, mentally defective sadist labeled “N.R.A.,” Bubba with his Freudian attachment to his semiautomatic rifle, is more or less how our new bicoastal elites view a large majority of the American population, or anyone with the temerity to resist the abandonment of centuries of deeply ingrained traditions when called upon to do so at the drop of a syndrome. The propaganda is savage, unrestrained, and monstrously unfair, but not untypical.
In Lasch’s view, the new elites simply hate the values and beliefs of traditional communities, to the extent that they are no longer capable of comprehending them, and venerate instead the ideals of diversity and multiculturalism. For them, the future will be characterized by a lack of borders, of restraints on the movement of people or money, and above all by the abandonment of any restraints that they see as preventing human fulfillment, namely the constrictions of sexual roles and of the family. Life becomes as unconstrained as the Internet or the Web, where one has no idea whether the information one uses is ultimately derived from Tulsa or Tibet. Not quoted here, but still relevant, is John Lennon’s complex manifesto “Imagine” (“Imagine there’s no countries . . . a Brotherhood of Man”). The model megalopolis of the new era is the Utopian city of Los Angeles, with its “correct” orientation toward the Pacific rather than to what was once the American heartland. To fulfill our destiny in the Pacific century, it is first necessary to abandon those financial and economic restraints which prevent the ultimate merger into the nationless world federation. And someday, the final frontier will be attained: “Next year in Tokyo . . . ” is the ideal.
In domestic terms, the consequences of the new internationalism are summarized by the immortal words of the English comedian Tony Hancock, who in his character as a radio ham pronounced that “I have friends all over the world . . . none in this country, but all over the world.” While the new elites move into the science-fiction Pacific Rim of the soul, they increasingly lose what vestigial contact remains with middle-class and (God forbid) poor Americans, as the rich increasingly secure themselves on luxury reservations protected by security guards, leaving the public schools and police and streets to a desperate and brutalized plebs. The political conclusion of all this would presumably be Spenglerian, and the most optimistic outcome might be termed “Caesarism.” Even worse scenarios were foreshadowed by the 1992 riots in that paragon of multicultural harmony, Los Angeles.
So much about this imaginary future appears familiar, even inevitable, that Lasch performs a major prophetic service by pointing out the many problems that arise when a society seeks to detach itself fully from its traditions and commonplaces, from family, community, and religion. The task might have been done somewhat better by Brave New World (written by a contemporary of Ortega), but Lasch’s jeremiads gain power from their strictly contemporary relevance. His central theme can be seen as profoundly un-American, nothing less than an assault on the evil consequences of mobility and a celebration of the fixed landmarks. Democracy, he argues, pre-
supposes community or at least communities, some commonly accepted forms of belief and ideology. Absent “a common ground, common standards, a common frame of reference . . . society dissolves into nothing more than contending factions . . . a war of all against all.” To see the process of social disintegration at work, and under government sponsorship, just glance at the categories of an affirmative action form (and no, you can’t just tick “American”).
Lasch traces the growing schism between elites and masses in several fine case studies, which consider, for example, the modern environment of journalism, the therapeutic “abolition of shame,” and the world of “academic pseudoradicalism” (incidentally, this is far more than simply another parade of p.c. follies). Lasch also reasserts the virtues of religion against the secularism of the new elites. Of course, the two concepts are by no means mutually exclusive, as secularism as such neither prohibits nor restrains the emergence of religious or even apocalyptic visions of the world. It merely ensures that such ideas will emerge in surreptitious forms peculiarly marked by hypocrisy, faddism, moral confusion, and hucksterism, and that they will provide a moral justification for more or less any form of vulgar self-aggrandizement. Was organized religion any worse than the cultism and fundamentalism of the allegedly secular elites?
Revolt of the Elites shows some signs of patchworking, and can usefully be read as individual essays ultimately drawn together into the larger whole. This caveat apart, the book is a stimulating example of cultural criticism at its best, raising the sort of questions that should be central to public debate. Presumably they will be, once the media can turn their attention from such pivotal phenomena as the O.J. Simpson case. I would get more involved in local issues myself, but I just found this neat Web-site at the University of Osaka . . .
[The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, by Christopher Lasch (New York: W.W. Norton) 276 pp., $22.00]