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The Great American Variety Show

America’s Quest for the Ideal Self: Dissent and Fulfillment in the Sixties and Seventies

by Peter Clecak
Oxford University Press, 395 pp., $27.50

With his latest book, Peter Clecak has joined Daniel Yankelovich, Alvin Toffler, Herman Kahn, and other cultural forecasters who celebrate the diversity and vigor of American culture and predict a “more abundant life” to come. Although his argument is more complicated and more carefully qualified than theirs, it shares certain features common to the genre of cultural forecasting and assessment. It relies heavily on opinion polls and survey data and on works that summarize this data, like Yankelovich’s New Rules and The Connecticut Mutual Life Report on American Values in the’80s.1 It deals for the most part with the kind of superficial cultural changes that can be measured by public opinion polls: that is, with changes in cultural fashions. The controlling image of cultural change in such studies is that of the balance sheet, in which gains always seem to outweigh losses, not only because losses tend to resist quantification but because they can be dismissed as the “price of progress.”

These periodic readings of the public pulse use survey data with little awareness of their limitations. Thus Clecak denies that we live in a “secular or profane” society and cites surveys showing that 90 percent of Americans still adhere to some religious faith, even though surveys do not and probably cannot measure the depth of religious commitment. He rests his case for economic progress, in part, on surveys that indicate an increase in “job satisfaction” but ignore workers’ complaints about automation, intrusive supervision, or the lack of opportunities for initiative or advancement.

Clecak draws liberally on such data and on New Rules, Daniel Yankelovich’s “illuminating study” of the search for personal fulfillment; but he finds even Yankelovich “insufficiently pluralistic” in his “too-harsh appraisal of the moral fitness of Americans in the seventies.” Yankelovich sees the culture of that decade as “more selfish and more narcissistic than I believe it was.” Clecak’s own reading of cultural trends, which emphasizes the “stunning successes evidenced in the widening and deepening of personhood and in an enlargement of cultural space,” rests not only on the results of surveys, but on his own political ideology: his growing dissatisfaction with the analysis of modern society advanced by writers on the left. Formerly a socialist and the author of two books that criticized the left from the left—Radical Paradoxes (1973) and Crooked Paths (1977)—Clecak has “drifted away” from socialism and “lost faith in the supremacy of politics, although not in its high importance, in arranging the circumstances of a decent social life.” He now thinks it is a mistake to “take the measure of American culture and society against some imagined socialist future.”

Socialists are not alone, of course, in criticizing American culture. Indeed it could be argued that socialists have themselves absorbed the dominant ideology of technological progress and no longer advocate standards of justice or of cultural democracy that transcend prevailing standards. The hope that the socialist movement might replace Christianity as the bad conscience of the West no longer has much to recommend it. As Jacques Ellul points out, the socialist movement has inherited not the bad conscience of Christianity but the easy conscience of the nineteenth-century bourgeois church. Clecak, on the other hand, objects to socialism for the curious reason that it holds up an impossible standard of moral and political perfection.

American culture, he insists, has to be judged on its own terms. He therefore objects not merely to criticism of American culture from the left but to almost any criticism at all. He finds equally unpersuasive Daniel Bell’s Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Philip Rieff’s Triumph of the Therapeutic and Fellow Teachers, and my own Culture of Narcissism. Ignoring their differences, Clecak lumps these books together as part of a general attack on American “selfishness,” ostensibly colored and flawed by “nostalgia.” Not socialism but nostalgia is Clecak’s real adversary. He finds nostalgia everywhere—on the left, in the center, on the neoconservative right. Whenever his own argument begins to falter, he brings on the cliché that critics of American culture suffer from uncontrollable nostalgia. He even manages to convince himself that cultural criticism in the Seventies, which allegedly fastened on the theme of the “me decade” (a very superficial reading of this criticism, incidentally) rested on nostalgia for the Sixties.

In order to refute this unfair criticism of the Seventies, as he sees it, and also to discourage the tendency to compartmentalize history by decades, Clecak emphasizes the continuity between the Sixties and the Seventies. He tries to show that even in the Sixties, cultural revolt—sexual freedom, rejection of the work ethic, experiments with oriental mysticism and charismatic Christianity, the hippies’ search for a community of love—took precedence over radical politics, and, furthermore, that the “quest for personal fulfillment” in the Seventies and Eighties complements the search for social justice instead of diverting attention from it. “Personhood,” he claims, presupposes a minimum of social justice. Now that Americans have accepted the new ideal of self-fulfillment first advanced by radicals in the Sixties, one group after another has demanded its rights and adopted formerly radical modes of political protest in order to secure them. This explosion of dissent, Clecak thinks, has resulted in ‘significant progress” for women, blacks, and other minorities—a “rapid democratization of personhood,” a “relaxation of work discipline,” a redistribution of “opportunity and responsibility.” Even beauty and ugliness have become “objects of dissent and protest.”

By confusing interest-group politics with a “widening and deepening of the idea of citizenship,” Clecak manages to convince himself that participatory democracy has made great strides. He sees political progress in the spread of “social criticism” and the multiplication of claimant groups—homosexuals, old people, environmentalists, taxpayers, the handicapped, even short people conducting a salutary campaign, as Clecak sees it, against “heightism,” or fat people deploring the cult of youthful slimness. He does not see that the language of radical protest loses its critical content when appropriated by such groups, who claim to have suffered discrimination as oppressive as that suffered by racial minorities. Nor does Clecak ask whether a democratic politics is likely to result from a moral exaltation of the victim.

True, he raises the possibility that “much of what passed for social criticism in the sixties and seventies” amounted to a kind of “junk criticism”—“demystification without understanding.” But he quickly redirects this observation against his opponents and loses the point in another warning against “knee-jerk pessimism”—as if it were “social criticism” that was undermining confidence in our institutions. It is Vietnam, Watergate, economic decline, the nuclear arms race, and public lying—developments barely alluded to in Clecak’s rosy account of recent history—that have weakened popular confidence in the future of democratic institutions. The point about social criticism is not that it encourages pessimism but that it has been cheapened, like everything else, by inflation. Since interest-group politics invites competitive claims to the privileged status of victimization, the rhetoric of moral outrage becomes routine, loses its critical edge, and contributes to the general debasement of political speech.

Clecak’s treatment of politics focuses on style rather than on substance. This might be forgiven in a book that deals principally with culture, if it did not approach culture in exactly the same way. There is something to be said for his insistence on the “secondary or accidental status of politics” in the cultural radicalism of the Sixties; but he trivializes the “counterculture” that appeared during those years by reducing it to a “quest for personal fulfillment.” By treating the radicalism of the Sixties as a “sensibility” or “style,” Clecak loses sight of its moral urgency. Even though the cultural side of the New Left’s criticism of American life has proved deeper and more durable than the political side, it was itself rooted in a perception of political crisis. The moral bankruptcy of American foreign policy, the danger of nuclear war, the poisoning of the air and water, the “nightmare of infinitely expanding technological progress,” as Norman O. Brown called it: these concerns shaped the counterculture at every point in its development. Even the movement’s illusions and craziness—its cult of violence, its infatuation with the media, its confusion of politics with guerrilla theater, its belief in the imminence of revolution, its ignorance of the past—sprang from an awareness that older political traditions, including both the liberal and the socialist traditions, had approached the point of exhaustion. Those who became radicals in the Sixties had a very shaky understanding of those traditions and thus tended to revive the very dogmas and schisms they thought they had outgrown. But at least they began with an important intuition into the present age as a sharp break in history, marked by mass murders, mass uprootings and migrations, but also by the possibility of a fresh start.

Clecak overlooks the peculiar combination of despair and hope that informed the New Left. Instead he observes the movement through the lens of a more recent preoccupation with “fulfillment.” Disregarding the specific historical roots of the New Left and the counterculture, he sees them as part of an amorphous collection of cultural initiatives that includes feminists and antifeminists, homosexuals and straights, militant atheists and born-again Christians—all those, in short, who resort to the “strategies of protest” and “dissent” in presenting their demands to the public.

Consider his discussion of evangelical and charismatic movements, which illustrates once again his subordination of content to style. He argues that millions of people still take Christianity seriously; he denounces intellectuals who look down on popular religion; but he ignores the specifically Christian content of the evangelical revival, just as he ignores the political content of the New Left, and proceeds to treat it as another expression of the search for “personal salvation conceived in its broadest theological and quasi-theological senses of felt wholeness.” He refuses to distinguish between the therapeutic strain in contemporary Christianity and the authentic Christian strain, arguing that only “purists” worry about the “illicit traffic” in salvation conducted by media evangelists and other hucksters of salvation. Most Americans, he claims, do not approach religion in a “sectarian” spirit—a remarkably misguided statement in view of the long history of American sectarianism, but one that fits snugly into a larger assumption about the nonideological character of American politics and religion.

The same assumption, reminiscent of the ideas of Louis Hartz and Daniel Boorstin,2 leads Clecak to avoid the conclusion that the revival of evangelical, charismatic, and fundamentalist sects signals a growing split between the culture of Middle America and the enlightened, secular, therapeutic culture of educated elites—a split referred to by some analysts as a “cultural civil war.” The hypothesis of cultural conflict has to be rejected, according to Clecak, because “these divisions do not threaten to destroy culture or to unravel the social fabric.” (Not many conflicts in history would meet such a rigorous test.) “Traditional” values have persisted side by side with newer values. The mixture leads not to conflict but to “more cultural opinions than ever: clear old choices, clear new choices, and a fertile range of ambiguous syntheses of old and new.” Like other pluralists, Clecak minimizes the persistence of ideological conflict by pretending that the exercise of cultural “options” has no consequences, since one choice never seems to preclude another. It is hardly necessary to explain that this assumption reduces the idea of choice to nonsense. Those who choose to raise their children as Christians claim that the mass media and the educational system subvert their efforts by propagating hedonism and “secular humanism,” while modernists believe that demands for the restoration of the death penalty, strict laws against abortion, and the teaching of “creation science” threatens everything they believe in. Every moral or cultural choice of any consequence rules out a whole series of other choices.

  1. 1

    Daniel Yankelovich, New Rules: Searching for Self-Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down (Random House, 1981); The Connecticut Mutual Life Report (Hartford: Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Co., 1981).

  2. 2

    See Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America (Harcourt Brace, 1955); Daniel Boorstin, The Genius of American Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1953).

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