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. 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 …

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