In his excellent re-evaluation of Christopher Lasch’s uprising of the elites, Rod Dreher asks whether it is too late to save the American experiment. His answer is: Except for a miracle, yes. “My rereading Revolt upset me,” he writes, “because it forced me to grapple with how long this process has been going on.” . . and how far we have saved ourselves we have traveled in the past quarter century. “Are things that bad and is populism (combined with divine intervention) the only answer?
Dreher is right that Lasch managed to get a large part of what American democracy is suffering from under control. For Lasch, the unlimited pursuit of capital has led to the marketing of almost all of life. The decline in American production has made it difficult for working class families to live on a single wage. The result is often that both parents work full-time and outsource child-rearing to “professionals”. Small shops and local hangouts where people of different classes could interact have been replaced with large stores and impersonal chain restaurants in order to generate larger profit margins. The result is that informal conversations between groups have ceased. The rich go to private cocktail parties and exclusive clubs while the plebs stare at television screens in Chili’s. The “decline of participatory democracy”, writes Lasch, could be directly related to the disappearance of these “third places”. Education has abandoned moral education in order to create an efficient workforce while promoting sense of legitimacy through victim narratives that postpone adulthood. Mathematics and science – the golden tools of the market – are funded, while history and English are either abbreviated or used to teach soft skills. Doing the right thing is replaced by a good feeling in homes and churches. The list goes on.
But that has been the case for much longer than 25 years. I remember Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, first published in 1952, which can be read as a commentary on life in the south after World War II. It is set in fictional Taulkinham – a town with shops and cinemas. “Nobody paid any attention to the sky,” writes O’Connor. “The stores … stayed open Thursday night so people would have an extra opportunity to see what’s for sale.” In one scene, a man sets up an “altar” to sell a new type of potato peeler. Everything what everyone does in Taulkinham is shopping and going to the movies. The novel does not feature two-parent families. Young men are either unemployed or in simple jobs. And the only religion anyone cares about is the Hoover Gospel of Prosperity Shoat, in which he tells citizens, “You don’t have to believe anything that you don’t understand and don’t approve of.” In another scene, a self-help columnist tells a character, “Perhaps you should review your religious values to see if they meet your needs A religious experience can be a nice addition to life if you put it in perspective and don’t let it get you [sic.] You. “Consumerism, therapeutic religion, selfishness run amok – it’s all there.
Robert Penn Warren, who was friends with O’Connor, argues in Democracy and Poetry (1975) that this atomization of society, which leads to both alienation and the uncontrolled pursuit of pleasure and comfort, persists even longer. In a survey of American writers from Walt Whitman and Herman Melville to F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, Warren shows that our great material success as a nation has become our greatest weakness. Melville writes that the “founders dream will flee” when men pursue “domination” over nature. Whitman complained in Democratic Vistas that the cities of the victorious north were “overflowing with little grotesques, deformities, phantoms and meaningless antics”.
Our technological advancement and our pursuit of prosperity at the expense of everything else are transforming, writes Warren, “man into machine”. You cannot have democracy without moral citizens, which is also Lasch’s argument, and machines are not moral. Democracy, Warren writes, “cannot exist in a society that is merely a mechanism for meeting human physical needs and maintaining order. . . Yet . . . Can such a society foster a community of individual selves linked by shared feelings, ideals, and notions of responsibility? “To get things right we just need to“ create a new set of attitudes and values, a new appraisal of our growing technological capacities in relation to the context of nature and our basic human needs ”. In short: a miracle.
Warren notes that belief in a higher power that calls us to a “higher,” more perfect life is essential to a democracy. As “the Christian will to change,” Warren writes, “springs from the love of God, so the will to change in our secular world implies an awareness of standards that are not easy to grasp – perfections that we love ourselves can approach. “For Warren, one such standard, along with religious belief, is art.
Lasch believed that any number of virtues could be learned from literature – courage, self-discipline, charity. So is Warren, but Warren argues that even the form of literature can teach us about the beauty of an orderly life.
Here Warren takes a slightly different note than Lasch. In The Revolt of the Elites, Lasch highlights how art, when treated as a substitute for religion, leads to attitudes that are the opposite of those commonly associated with religious belief. “Instead of self-denial and self-control,” writes Lasch, “this view of art” offered the seductive vision of selfhood that is not restricted by civil, family or religious obligations. It confirmed artists and intellectuals in their sense of superiority over their common herd. It sanctioned their revolt against convention, against civil solemnity, against stupidity and ugliness. “
Warren would no doubt agree with this assessment, but he argues that it doesn’t have to be. Poetry is or can be a model of a properly “organized self”:
This does not mean that the poet who constructs this model is necessarily such an organized self. Indeed, an appalling number of poets are notoriously disorganized. . . However, one can say that even if the poet is disorganized, the organized object can arise from disorder: the image of the “ideal self”, so to speak of the “regenerated self” of the disorganized person.
Lasch believed that any number of virtues could be learned from literature – courage, self-discipline, charity. So is Warren, but Warren argues that even the form of literature can teach us about the beauty of an orderly life. “The form of a work represents not only a manipulation of the world, but also an adventure in selfhood. It embodies the experience of a self vis-a-vis the world, not just as an object but as translated into the experience of form. “It is in its ability to inspire us to become a work of art, a more perfect form of ourselves, that poetry is like religion in a positive way. In this sense, it can “strengthen democracy”.
What about the accusation that poetry is “anti-democratic and promotes elitism”? First, it is not really elitist because, like the sciences, those who practice and enjoy it come from “all sorts of groups, classes and races.” Second, although only a minority is involved at a high level, it still offers secondary benefits (if characterized by excellence) like the pure sciences, the seemingly useless experiments of which are changing society ten, twenty, fifty years later.
I like most of Dreher’s proposals for “structural economic reform,” but the focus on religious and working class concerns is too narrow and too short-term. Warren’s argument for the role of poetry in a democracy reminds us not only of the importance of a long-term view, but also of the central importance of excellence in a good society. This is also Lasch’s concern, but it cannot be remedied through economic reforms alone.