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I’m All Right, Jack

In response to:

Dr. Yes from the October 31, 1963 issue

To the Editors:

Jason Epstein’s review of S. M. Lipset’s The First New Nation is only one of a number of recent cases in which the people who want to improve American society are turned upon violently by those who find it a failure so complete that disgust is the only proper reaction. Mr. Epstein has gone only a small part of the way towards developing the grounds that justify such a reaction. When he writes, “Fifteen per cent of Americans own nothing (nothing at all?),” I am unconvinced that his emotion is roused by that statistic; but that, having found substantial weakness and problems, such as the treatment of the Negroes and the persistence of poverty, he has come upon something on which to hang his emotions. The figure…refers to property, not income. When Dwight Macdonald reviewed Gabriel Kolko’s book on poverty, he was able to raise an eyebrow at Mr. Kolko’s indignation over the fact that only 23 per cent of Americans earning less than $1,000 a year have an automobile. He wrote, “The real point, of course, is just the opposite.” Quite so: since when have we had societies in which 85 per cent own something?

Alas, in the present atmosphere of discussion in advanced journals, even referring to such a fact opens one to denunciation as a complacent Bourbon. But Mr. Lipset didn’t even go so far: when he wrote that the poor today are scattered and politically ineffective, he did so to make the point that the improvement of their condition depends less on their political power than on the concern of those more advantageously placed—the Democratic Party, the trade unions, the intellectuals.

But many intellectuals find American society so impossible they can barely stand looking at it to find out what is going on. Mr. Epstein seems to find its chief failure in the denial of opportunity which has become “the occasional privilege of the limited class.” This is a fantastic description of a society in which it becomes a matter of great public concern that one-third of those who enter high schools do not graduate; that the median income of Negroes in the North is only 80 per cent of the white; and in which such programs as retraining men out of work for jobs while they and their families are maintained are expanded. It is equally fantastic to consider one of the chief defects of this society its failure to make privacy possible. In a country in which more people live alone—and can afford it—than any in the world? Where huge numbers are maintained at a subsistence level, or better, in their own homes, without working? I am taking the notion of privacy, as I think Mr. Epstein wants it to be taken, concretely. A room, and home of one’s own.

I cannot believe that what worries Mr. Epstein are the restrictions on equality of opportunity and the rights of privacy; what he is really wrought up about, I think, is: here we have opportunity, and it turns out life is awful; we have privacy, and it turns out just as bad. The question becomes, why is it so bad for us? From this point of view, anyone who finds this country even a relative success must be writing gibberish.

Our misery is a fact; and it is reasonable that there should be some connection with society. But I have never been sympathetic with young men who denounce their parents for making things too easy, or not giving them things to fight against. But Lipset’s problem was, how do you get a stable, democratic political order, which most people, even in new nations, consider good? Mr. Epstein’s real complaint is that once you get a society to that point you have only succeeded in leaving people alone with their miseries. But to even get that far is an achievement.

Lipset’s analysis of how one gets a stable democratic political order is subtle and sophisticated, and read with another eye one might even find it says something for sociology. One becomes aware of how close this nation was, in its earliest days, to succumbing to autocracy punctuated by disorder. And his analysis of how a new nation deals with such matters as, arranging for peaceful succession or pushing economic development through government power, may arouse sympathy for the problems of new nations and may appear to foreigners more candid about our problems than patronizing about theirs.

Is it necessary to add that there is a good deal wrong, that neither this society nor any other may find ways of escaping from technological, population, atomic and other explosions? But there is some cause for pride in the way certain problems in the past, even many in the present, are being handled. And is there any hint in Mr. Epstein’s attack of how better a complex, multiracial society can manage its affairs?

Nathan Glazer

Department of Sociology,

University of Callifornia, Berkeley

Jason Epstein replies:

My objection to S. M. Lipset’s book is not so much to its complacency as to its incoherence. The two faults are, however, related. Because Mr. Lipset chooses to be complacent about some of the obvious weakness in American society, he cannot provide a coherent or even an intelligible account of that society. It is Mr. Lipset, not myself, who finds American society unbearable to look at nor do I find with Mr. Glazer that “our misery is a fact.” I may, however, have used “privacy” in too private a sense. I did not mean a “room of one’s own” so much as the right not to have one’s atmosphere polluted by nuclear testers or one’s sleep disturbed by politicians’ sound trucks or one’s children discouraged by an obligatory and monopolistic but insipid school system, to mention only three respects in which privacy has declined despite or because of our best “democratic” intentions. I do not, however, find American society “totally repulsive,” and I did not intend for my review to give that impression. I did, however, find Mr. Lipset’s book almost totally incoherent and I am sorry that Mr. Glazer in his long letter did not see fit to refute me on that score rather than impute to me motives and attitudes which I do not have.

I regret that a printer’s error rendered an entire paragraph of my review meaningless except to practiced readers of The New York Review, who are used to deciphering such riddles. The paragraph should have read:

This mess, which is fairly typical of the language throughout, is surely not the work of a man who wants urgently to be understood. It is, rather, the literary counterpart to a stutter, which, according to one psychological theory, is the speaker’s defense against the impulse to say things he knows he shouldn’t.

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