Magazine article Insight on the News

The Elite Don't Mix with the Masses

Magazine article Insight on the News

The Elite Don't Mix with the Masses

Article excerpt

Christopher Lasch, best known for his book The Culture of Narcissism, published in 1979, completed his last one shortly before dying of cancer in 1994. Written "under trying circumstances," as he put it in the acknowledgments, Lasch's final take on American society carries the force of Matthew Arnold's famous line, "Truth sits upon the lips of dying men."

In The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (Norton, 276 pp), Lasch struggles with the inevitable dilemma of secularist liberals: how to hack a path to a less self-indulgent future through thickets of narcissism and greed, crime and illiteracy and academic "pseudoradicalism" without recourse to the conservative critic's weaponry of universal truths and religious faith.

Interestingly, Lasch has no doubt that want of religion or something very much like it lies at the heart of society's malaise. Religion requires one to measure oneself against an externally imposed standard of conduct, a standard sufficiently demanding to encourage humility. Lasch realizes that religion cannot be brought back into style simply because it would be socially useful; his chapter surveying books on the trendy subject of shame, however, finds him deploring the therapeutic society. "Maybe religion is the answer after all," he writes. "It is not at all clear, at any rate, that religion could do much worse."

Lasch would like to see a revival of American pragmatism. "A public philosophy for the twenty-first century will have to give more weight to the community than to the right of private decision," he writes. "It will have to emphasize responsibilities rather than rights. It will have to find a better expression of the community than the welfare state. It will have to limit the scope of the market and the power of corporations without replacing them with a centralized state bureaucracy."

The American tradition of populism is rooted in the noon of small-proprietorship as the foundation of citizenship. Lasch traces that story and more, in the course of which small-holders became hired employees and citizens became consumers. He notes the rise, willy nilly, of wealth and social class and the withering of neighborhoods and institutions in which different classes might meet as equals. And he laments the usual sorry tales: school curricula rendered bland by the simultaneous success and failure of Horace Mann's innovations; university "canon" battles waged but without relevance to the needs of most students; journalism "professionalized" and an oral tradition of public debate reduced to sound bites. …

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