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More on Dr. Yes

In response to:

Dr. Yes from the October 31, 1963 issue

To the Editors:

Mr. Epstein’s criteria for reviewing Lipsets’ The First New Nation (in your issue of October 31) are rather tried; by them, a sociologist must write novels and attack America to qualify. Actually they reflect the personal problems of a small group of anti-establishment establishment, rather than those either of my profession or of this country.

Epstein opens rather typically with a recollection of his days as a college undergraduate, when he could understand society by reading Proust and Joyce, and the only qualification for sociology was a major in English literature. One did not need worry about voting patterns, manpower statistics, or public opinion polls. One established what the mood of the people was by quoting Melville; and what more was there to society than a mood? Nowhere does the reviewer acknowledge that the facts he uses to criticize Lipset, Weber, and sociology in general, have been collected by that very breed and by the very methods Epstein believes he could do without.

Cranking out a familiar tune, Epstein attacks the American sociologists not for what they say but for the way they say it. I wish Epstein and company would be somewhat more bound by the canon of evidence, and, instead of quoting each other, would learn to count. They would soon be forced to recognize that each major American university has by now at least one major sociologist who by all standards writes rather well. To name a few: Daniel Bell, Lewis Coser, Nathan Glazer, David Riesman, and Dennis Wrong, among the more persuasive writers; Edward Shils, Robert K. Merton, Erving Goffman, and, yes, Talcott Parsons—all produced essays in a prose no essayist would be ashamed of. C. Wright Mills, though he spat in the well he was drinking from, was after all trained by sociologists, teaching sociology, and writing sociology. The list could easily be extended, but the fact that some sociologists, like some English majors, do not know what they are talking about, and use jargon to fig-leaf their shortcomings, will continue to serve Epstein and his like in attacking sociology and reviewing its works without having studied it. Why ask an Epstein to review a Lipset book in the first place?

Limited space will not allow exploring the point, but just for the record it must be said that Epstein’s statement “that the meaning of what one said depended rigorously upon how one said it, in a poem or an historical work as much as in a mathematical expression” shows a profound ignorance of the difference between the language requirements of the humanities, social sciences, and mathematics.

The second problem Mr. Epstein has is that the United States is all too imperfect. Lipset, to Epstein’s obvious discomfort, has repeatedly emphasized the limitations of American democracy throughout his book; but this did not prevent the reviewer from branding him Dr. Yes for his conviction that there are still lessons that the new nations can learn from the United States. Epstein points out, as Lipset does, that the United States has not solved its Negro problem, or that of the unemployed. To be sure, all these are painful shortcomings. But does it follow that the United States has nothing to offer the new nations? Does it follow, as Epstein implies, that the business in the shop next door (a shop whose name Epstein never discloses) is more attractive since “prices are lower and the service may be quicker”?

Lipset has written a book on what the new nations, and all human societies, will find in America. I do not agree with all he says, or the way he says it, but hopefully a serious debate over his contribution, or over America’s example for new nations, can start now that Mr. No’s alienation from social sciences and America has been aired.

Amitai Etzionl

Department of Sociology

Columbia University

Mr Epstein replies:

Part of my argument with S. M. Lipset is that he writes clumsily, a fault which he shares with a number of his colleagues, including, alas, some of those who, according to Mr. Etzioni, write “by all standards…rather well.” But what reservations are implied, I wonder, in Mr. Etzioni’s “rather well?” And “by all standards” does he mean low standards as well as high standards, the standards of Dr. Goebbels and those of Dr. Johnson too? Mr. Etzioni may find it ignorant of me, when I was an undergraduate, to have felt that what one said depended rigorously upon how one said it, but Mr. Etzioni’s own language would not be open to such inquiries if he paid attention to this elementary rhetorical principle.

Mr. Etzioni is not only a careless writer, he is a poor reader. I did not say that Mr. Lipset should have written a novel criticizing America. I tried instead to show the connection between his imprecise language and the shallowness of his observations. Because Mr. Lipset refused to confront his thesis directly with America’s present political and moral dilemmas, he was unable to describe our society honestly. It is only half true for Mr. Etzioni to say that Lipset “repeatedly emphasize(s) the limitations of American democracy,” for Mr. Lipset fails, except in his epilogue, to consider the present consequences of these limitations. His assumption seems to be that because America had successfully established itself as a nation by 1914, its current problems can necessarily be solved by its traditional methods.

Of course there are lessons for the new countries to learn from America (as there are lessons for us to learn from them), but no one is going to learn anything from S. M. Lipset until he makes it a part of his argument, and not just an afterthought as he does in his new book, that neither we nor they have yet found ways to deal democratically with the problem of racial minorities, poverty, and the new technology. My argument with S. M. Lipset, and with many other sociologists, is that unless they confront these dilemmas steadily and honestly, instead of trying to paint them over, their descriptions of modern society and their language are bound to be incoherent. They are bound to produce salestalks or guilty apologies or official propaganda or nonsense. Such rhetorical evasions such as S. M. Lipset’s “sociologically meaningful democracy” or Lenin’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” or our own “wars of liberation” in Viet Nam and elsewhere are more than linguistic trumpery: they are symptoms of the ethical defect of modern history and it is time we all learned to be suspicious of them, as we have learned to be suspicious of poetry whose pretentiousness or stridency or vagueness suggests an inadequacy of vision or feeling—hence a distance from the truth—on the part of the poet. In this sense, the standards of literary judgment, which are not just “all standards,” are appropriate to the study of history and society.

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