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One Nation, Two Cultures

by Gertrude Himmelfarb

Gertrude Himmelfarb contrasts leftism with neoconservatism. That way, neoconservatism wins the battle of Himmelfarb. Other world views are missing.


Himmelfarb is right about at least one thing. left and right are polarized. Though the Democratic and Republican parties are both to varying degrees pro-rich, anti-worker, pro-globalism, and pro-militarism, you'd seldom realize it from their rhetoric.


The better arguments in One Nation look similar to a summary of trends and circumstances offered by Jean Bethke Elshtain in Society. To summarize Elshtain:

·        More for old, less for young.

·        Less marriage and family.

·        High crime, but glee over recent slight declines in reported crimes. (If a factor causes only one in 10,000 more individuals in a given year to commit murder, that is enough—all other things kept constant—to quadruple the homicide rate from the 1950s. Small numbers of individuals can cause huge increases in crime and misery. Individuals report crimes less often. Murders declined mainly because of improvements in emergency medicine and reductions in lead poisoning.)

·        Awful education.

·        Poor civic engagement.

·        Acceptance of adults as perpetual adolescents.

·        Nonfamily groupisms: Race, gender, ethnicity, wealth, social status, sports, religion, etc.

·        Increased tolerance for selfishness, less tolerance for morality.

·        Self-worth measured primarily by money.

·        Loss of interest and confidence in moral truths, especially in public policies.


Himmelfarb is among many making the good point that what passes for “civil society” is often a way of “evading the hard choices involved in any social policy.” The Communitarian idea of “civic life” is a bunch of uninformed individuals sitting around shooting the bull in vague blather rather than an engagement in thorough reasoning. Civil society is often conceived as simply being nice. Other civil society groups (interest groups) cause demosclerosis.


Himmelfarb is in good shape noting that “value-free” laws are rare. Almost all laws are legislated morality, no matter what clichés about legislating morality insist. The people who excoriate direct moral language simply use indirect moral language.


Other intriguing ideas from Himmelfarb: Totalitarian markets encourage habits of "rationalization.” America cares for children in rhetoric. It is indifferent or hostile in practice. Like others, she splendidly notes that keeping the explicitly moral out of schools is horrible. Schools already teach values—do not cheat, be on time, return borrowed items, Channel One educates, football victories matter—the question is which values. Some research mentioned elsewhere suggests that character education, reduces vandalism and discipline problems while increasing attendance and academic performance.


She admits that elites in opposing cultures have similarities. Opposing elites can wallow in mediocrity or destruction, not facing many horrible consequences. They do scummy things with less risk because they can afford body guards, health foods, personal trainers, gated communities, and super lawyers, no matter what political side they are on. Various opposing cultures promote what Roger Shattuck phrases as “the morality of the cool.” (About two years ago I saw the pathetic sight of grown men lining up outside a sporting goods store the morning a sports-icon-of-the-century-of-the-15-minutes released a new shoe.)


But much of this work describes the world as a leftism to neoconservatism spectrum--a simple, elegant, and wrong spectrum. There are plenty of other “oppositional cultures” in many dimensions: earth-firsters, freedom-firsters, religion-firsters, institution-firsters, and so on. The Cato Institute is a better ally of wealthy hedonism than Hugh Hefner.


For a book about morality, this work has a near absence of the words harm and benefit. Culture warriors are more interested in creating arbitrary rules, making sure the rules get publicity, and demonizing opponents over minor issues. Cultural warfare rarely serves moral ends. It serves interest groups. Conservatives and their opposites need each other to keep their own power--and serve up straw persons. Cultural issues also have the rhetorical benefit of being concrete, entertaining, and emotively loaded.


One Nation has decent philosophical points, but fails at policy and social science, Some of her points against welfare are good, but many of her causal claims fail to account for other factors such as heredity. Rights are put in scare quotes by Himmelfarb--as if rights have little to do with morality. She concurs with Charles Murray that all government benefit programs keep growing. I can think of many programs that shrunk.


She asserts that covenant marriages and premarital counseling induce too much doubt? Why? She offers no evidence. It seems to me that counseling will mostly prevent marriages that should not happen.


She describes marriage commitment funds--couples putting aside money for their retirement or punishment in the event of divorce--as too materialistic, immoral, and unspiritual. Himmelfarb makes the good points that reforms not made also have unintended consequences, that national politicians often campaign on issues no bigger than those handled by small town mayors, that retreat from the public domain is understandable, yet reprehensible. In times past self-discipline and other bourgeois virtues received greater reward. Increasingly, rewards and resources shift toward parasitism and self-indulgence.


Himmelfarb conflates religion and morality. The feel-good religious revival shows few signs of being a moral revival: Go to church, read a shallow newspaper, watch TV, listen to a Gospel Rock CD, drive a Lexus, assert arbitrary rules, then excoriate opponents on some trivial issue such as school prayer. Within conservative Christianity, at least one branch thinks many other conservative Christians are self-absorbed windbags.


If you want a conventional point of view, this is the book. If you want to know to understand the varieties of the American experience or what ways of living are best, this is not the best book.


—Book review article by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 26, 2009


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