Episode 65: “What Would Lasch Say?”

Podcast

The American historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch (1932-1994) had a powerful influence on the world of ideas. What would the author of the best-selling Culture of Narcissism (1979) have to say about Donald Trump and his particular brand of populism? In this episode we talk about Lasch, Trump, populism, progress, and “evangelical elitism” with intellectual historian Eric Miller, author of the award-winning Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch (2010).

https://playlist.megaphone.fm?e=ADL1257192517

What is Populism?

lasch millerI have been writing about populism in light of the recent Christianity Today editorial calling for the removal of Donald Trump.  You can read my posts here and here and here and here.

What is populism?  How should we think historically about this term?  I would encourage you to listen to Episode 41 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  In this episode we talk with Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin, the author of several books on populism.  Listen here.

I was also thinking about Eric Miller‘s biography of intellectual historian Christopher Lasch, Hope in a Scattering Time:  A Life of Christopher LaschLasch was attracted to a particular version of populism.  Here is Miller:

The regnant American belief in “progress,” Lasch contended, far from being a misty vesitge of an older, mythical, millenarian worldview that saw history moving in an upward direction, was instead mainly the mental effect of so many decades of unending improvements in the “quality of life.”  True, these improvements  were only material in nature–which had once upon a time troubled the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne.  But the apologists for the new order had emerged quickly, having “mastered the tone and bluff of jocular dismissal, the unapologetically pristine defense of everyday comforts,” and such worries were allayed with impressive dispatch.  “No one could argue very long against abundance,” Lasch acidly noted.  Progress, “this tawdry dream of success,” was here to stay.  Lasch’s entirely unsparing depiction to the merest pleasures cast the reign of industrial capitalism not as the triumph of an ideal but as the effecting of a seduction, and the seduced were now sleeping to the steady rhythms of The Economy, shamelessly content, degradingly weak, confident in progress and lost in nostalgia, burning up the world to maintain their tenuous state of warmth.

Between these polar tendencies, “progressivism” and “conservatism,” lay the radical option.  Recognizing humans’ perennial need for the renewal of life, radicals did not give in to the life-denying forms of political and intellectual dependence–whether “traditional” or “progressive”–that characterized both right and left.  Rather, radicals sought through particular practices to cultivate an independence of mind and spirit that, structured within and by the community, could give a person the keenness to detect and strength to resist the political and economic powers that sought always to enthrone themselves as the necessary ends of human life.  In short, while conservatives defaulted wearily to “tradition” and liberals ran after “progress,” radicals pursued virtue–and so justice, Lasch pointed out, if at times only as a hope against hope.

In the nineteenth century this radical political sensibility came to be most fully embodies by populism, Lasch argued, but its antecedents included, along with the Puritans (and other Christian streams), the republicans of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and even some species of liberal thinkers, such as Thomas Paine, who saw in incipient industrial capitalism a threat to the communal world of craftsmen and farmers they thought more desirable.  In the nineteenth century these varying populist trajectories had in the crucible of the industrial economy melded oddly but powerfully to yield a “producer ethic” that was “anticapitalist but not socialist or social democratic, at once radical, even revolutionary, and deeply conservative”; it was preserved most fully in the lives of the petty- bourgeoisie–the lower middle class.  Poised between the “fatuous optimism” of the scientific progressives and the “debilitating nostalgia” of Burkean conservatives, the populist sensibility held firmly to a way of life that is understood to be the foundation of the nation’s promise–the old understanding of the American dream.  “A whole way of life was at stake in the struggle against industrialism,” Lasch concluded, following with special appreciation the argument of populist scholar Lawrence Goodwyn.  “Producerism; a defense of endangered crafts (including the craft of farming); opposition to the new class of public creditors and to the whole machinery of modern finance; opposition to wage labor”: all of these were the battlefronts of the great populist attempt to keep alive another America, another meaning of citizenship.  But at that moment of direct confrontation at the end of the nineteenth century they had lost, steamrolled by progress–by progressives.

The victors had been led by H.L. Mencken’s “civilized minority,” and they became the new ruling class.  Their sociologists lost themselves in fruitless attempts to understand “gemeinschaft” and “gesellschaft” dynamics, typologies that only quickened their sense of disconnection from the past.  Their historians (most eminently, Hofstadter) told self-congratulating tales of their own righteous ascent, stories that only increased their distant from the “uneducated” masses.  Blinded by their confidence in their own progressive march, they misunderstood the past and misread its inhabitants, veering sharply between sentimentality on the one hand and contempt on the other, remaining convinced all the while that, whatever its pitfalls, “modernity” made possibly an undeniably superior way of life….

Some Front Porchers Pick Their Candidate for 2020

Buttigeig

What is a Front Porcher?  One way to define a Front Porcher is someone who reads (and generally likes what they read at) a website titled Front Porch Republic.  Here is a description of what the website is all about:

The economic crisis that emerged in late 2008 and the predictable responses it elicited from those in power has served to highlight the extent to which concepts such as human scale, the distribution of power, and our responsibility to the future have been eliminated from the public conversation. It also threatens to worsen the political and economic centralization and atomization that have accompanied the century-long unholy marriage between consumer capitalism and the modern bureaucratic state. We live in a world characterized by a flattened culture and increasingly meaningless freedoms. Little regard is paid to the necessity for those overlapping local and regional groups, communities, and associations that provide a matrix for human flourishing. We’re in a bad way, and the spokesmen and spokeswomen of both our Left and our Right are, for the most part, seriously misguided in their attempts to provide diagnoses, let alone solutions.

Though there is plenty we disagree about, and each contributor can be expected to stand by the words of only his or her own posts, the folks gathered here more or less agree with the above assertions. We come from different backgrounds, live in different places, and have divergent interests, but we’re convinced that scale, place, self-government, sustainability, limits, and variety are key terms with which any fruitful debate about our corporate future must contend. We invite you to read along, and perhaps join the discussion.

Or you can read this book to learn more about the Front Porch movement.  The website also recommends essays by Patrick Deneen, Mark T. Mitchell, and Bill Kauffman. Back in the day, I also wrote a few things for the Front Porch Republic.

Front Porchers tend to be conservative, localist, and communitarian.  They celebrate limits and community.  They love authors such as Wendell Berry (and agrarians like him) and Christopher Lasch.

And now a few Front Porchers have suggested that South Bend mayor Pete Buttigeig is their guy in 2020.  Here is a taste of Elias Crim‘s essay “Found: The Perfect FPR Presidential Candidate!“:

In our ponderings, the notion of the perfect Porcher candidate naturally has arisen, but I have to report the pickings have thus far been slim. Perhaps that’s because of our pig-headedness in clinging to certain criteria.

To wit: our ideal Porcher president would necessarily be a committed localist. And we’d need some deeds as well as words on this score—none of that armchair agrarian nonsense.

Next, we need someone whose beliefs are a tad more vigorous than that limp phrase “faith-based” implies. I think we’d be looking for someone who self-describes as religious, without necessarily plumping for any one of the Great Traditions. (The old expression Judeo-Christian comes to mind, at the mention of which my friend Joseph Epstein always likes to ask, “So who are these Judeos anyway?”)

As enthusiastic readers of that brilliant madman Bill Kaufmann, we would certainly want an anti-militarist, God help us. Maybe also someone critical of neoliberalism and distributist (in some fashion) in outlook.

If we wanted to get really starry-eyed, we’d hope for someone who’s highly literate—even multi-lingual, now that we’re really getting carried away here.

To my astonishment, it turns out we have a chap who fills this bill—and turns out he’s been living only a few miles down the road from me, happily ensconced in the security of being mayor of that smallish Midwestern city, South Bend. I refer of course to the skyrocketing Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

His public career is a parable of the local boy who went away, made good (and much better than good: Harvard, Oxford, McKinsey, U.S. Navy), and moved back home to get down to work. Buttigieg’s new book, Shortest Way Home (title borrowed from James Joyce), is a sentimental portrait of South Bend beyond the wildest dreams of any civic booster, while also describing how a place-based and “smart city” strategy has completely changed the fate of that previously feckless-looking small city.

That Mayor Pete is also a religious person might surprise some, but they’ll be even more surprised at the enthusiasm and candor with which he discusses his faith publicly, as in this recent appearance

His criticism of NAFTA, the financial system, and our history of perpetual war are standard points now in his interviews and (assuming he announces) will find a place in his public platform.

Read the entire piece here.  This makes perfect sense, although, as Crim notes, I am not sure the Christian Front Porchers will be willing to vote for a gay man.

Is Jimmy Carter an Antidote to Trump?

David Siders thinks so.  Here is a taste of his recent piece at Politico:

“Carter almost takes us out of the entire realm of what our politics has become,” said Paul Maslin, a top Democratic pollster who worked on the presidential campaigns of Carter and Howard Dean. “He’s the anti-Trump … I mean, we have almost the polar opposite as president, somebody who is so an affront to everything that’s good and kind and decent.”

Maslin said, “I have felt for some time that a candidate who is not just good on the issues but can marshal a moral clarity about what our politics ought to be, in contrast to what it has become, that person … that could be the currency of 2020.”

In fact, Carter has become a constant point of reference early in the campaign for Democrats polling outside of the top tier. John Delaney, the little-known former Maryland congressman who by August 2018 had already campaigned in all 99 counties in Iowa, has likened his focus on the first-in-the-nation caucus state to Carter’s.

And after her pilgrimage to see Carter this year, Klobuchar wrote on social media, “Wonderful lunch with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter today at their home in Plains. Tomato soup and pimento cheese sandwiches! Got some good advice and helpful to hear about their grassroots presidential campaign (when no one thought they could win but they did)!”

Read the entire piece here.

I still think Carter’s 1979 “malaise speech” is one of the best presidential speeches I have heard in my lifetime.

  • Notice that Carter used the phrase “I feel your pain” before Bill Clinton popularized it.
  • The speech has a streak of populism in it.
  • It is deeply honest and humble. Can you imagine a president today reading criticism of his presidency before a national audience?
  • Carter identifies the loss of national purpose and a “crisis of confidence” as a “fundamental threat to American democracy.”  It is a forward-looking message of hope and progress.  Carter speaks with conviction, often raising his fist to strengthen his points.
  • Carter says that self-indulgence, consumption, and materialism undermines citizenship. According to historian Kevin Mattson, this comes directly from historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch and his best-selling The Culture of Narcissism.
  • Carter points to the many ways the country has gone astray–Vietnam and Watergate and economic dependence on Middle East oil.
  • Carter offers “honest answers” not “easy answers.”  Of course no one wants to work hard and make sacrifices, they want individualism and freedom instead.  A little over a year after this speech Ronald Reagan defeated Carter with just such a message of individualism and freedom.
  • Carter warns us about the path of self-interest and fragmentation.  This is what America got with Reagan.  See Daniel T. Rodgers’s The Age of Fracture.
  • Carter sees the national discussion of energy as way of bringing a divided nation together.  This seems more relevant than ever today.  Green New Deal aside, a green solution to energy would create jobs and strengthen the economy.
  • When Carter talks about foreign oil and America’s dependence upon it, he is invoking founding fathers such as Alexander Hamilton who worked tirelessly to make the nation economically independent.
  • Interesting that in the 1970s Democrats still saw coal as a vital energy source.  He also champions pipelines and refineries.
  • Carter calls for a strengthening of public transportation and local acts of conservation.  This kind of self-sacrifice, Carter says, “is an act of patriotism.”  This reminds me of the non-importation agreements during the American Revolution.    To stop drinking tea or buying British goods was seen as a similar act of patriotism. See T.H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution.  Carter says “there is no way to avoid sacrifice.”
  • As I have noted above, this speech hurt Carter politically.  But it is deeply honest and, in my opinion, true.

Is Christopher Lasch’s *Revolt of the Elites* Really a Reflection of America in the Age of Trump?

revoltKevin Mattson, Connor Study Professor of Contemporary History at Ohio University and a student of the late historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch, reflects on the relevance of his mentor in the age of Trump.  He questions whether those calling attention today to Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites really understand what the book is about.

Here is a taste of his recent piece in The Chronicle Review:

The first time I saw Lasch’s name invoked recently was in the Trump “syllabus” in these pages. Jill Lepore cited Lasch’s posthumous book, The Revolt of the Elites (1995), for its “uncanny” prediction of “a democratic crisis resulting from the fact that ‘elites speak only to themselves,’ partly because of ‘the absence of institutions that promote general conversations across class lines.’” Writing in The Baffler, George Scialabba reminded readers of Lasch’s ire toward capitalism. But conservatives have also been touting Lasch’s work. At The American Conservative, Gilbert T. Sewall cites Lasch in describing a “white, yeoman flight from the Democratic Party.” Ross Douthat, of The New York Times, argues that Lasch offered an “angry” but important critique of “the professional upper class’s withdrawal from the society it rules.” And none other than Stephen Bannon has reportedly cited The Revolt of the Elites as one of his favorite books to understand this juncture in history.

I’d welcome this renewed interest, but what worries me is that much of it is driven by a desire to explain the phenomenon of Trump, and particularly the politics of the white working class in 21st-century America. The Revolt of the Elites, a book that was hastily written and not Lasch’s best, has drawn the most attention, which is unfortunate. Lasch left behind a number of important, thoughtful works of history that serve simultaneously as eye-opening social criticism. But if you go back to him to find answers as to why large numbers of the white working class voted for a man whose wealth and fame are built upon a lavish hotel business and reality television, you will be left scratching your head.

Read the entire piece here.

Quote of the Day

revoltFrom Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1996):

Both left-and right-wing ideologies, in any case, are now so rigid that new ideas make little impression on their adherents.  The faithful, having sealed themselves off from arguments and events that might call their own convictions into question, no longer attempt to engage their adversaries in debate.  Their reading consists for the most part of works written from a point of view identical with their own.  Instead of engaging unfamiliar arguments, they are content to classify them as either orthodox or heretical.  The exposure of ideological deviation, on both sides, absorbs energies that might better be invested in self-criticism, the waning capacity for which is the surest sign of a moribund intellectual tradition.

The Democratic Malaise

revoltThis morning I picked up my copy of Christopher Lasch’s 1995 book The Revolt and the Elite and the Betrayal of Democracy and started reading it again.  I am still trying to process it all from the perspective of the so-called age of Trump, but here is a relevant passage from the Introduction.

p. 5-6: Thanks to the decline of old money and the old-money ethic of civic responsibility, local and regional loyalties are sadly attenuated today…Advancement in business and the professions, these days, requires a willingness to follow the siren call of opportunity wherever it leads.  Those who stay at home forfeit the chance of upward mobility.  Success has never been so closely associated with mobility, a concept that figuted only marginally in the nineteenth-century definition of opportunity…Anbitious people understand, then, that a migratory way of life is the price of getting ahead…The new elites are in revolt against “Middle America,” as they imagine it: a national technologically backward, politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middlebrow in its tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy.  Those who covet membership in the new aristocracy of brains tend to congregation on the coasts, turning their back on the heartland and cultivating ties with the international market in fast-moving money, glamour, fashion, and popular culture….The new elites are at home only in transit, en route to a high-level conference, to the grand opening of a new franchise, to an international film festival, or to an undiscovered resort.  Theirs is essentially a tourist’s view of the world–not a perspective likely to encourage a passionate devotion to democracy.

As I read this passage I began to wonder how much the ascension of Trump is really a story that can be explained through the lens of “place.”  Healthy democracies often require face-to-face engagement in public spaces where ideas can be exchanged in civil ways. Sadly, it is hard to find these kind of spaces in America today.  Ambitious kids in search of the American dream no longer seem to find that dream at home, unless, of course, home is on the coasts.  They go off to college and never come back, depriving the communities that raised them of the intellectual resources and skills in informed, evidence-based conversation that are necessary for democracy to function at the local level.  (This, of course, assumes that they are getting these skills and resources from college.  With the rise of professional programs at the expense of the humanities this kind of education is no longer a given).

While Lasch’s juxtaposition of the “elite” and the “people may be a bit contrived, I think he does have a point.  If time allows, I will try to develop some of my thinking along these lines and post some more stuff from Revolt of the Elites.  I want to reread Revolt alongside J.D. Vance’s celebrated Hillbilly Elegy.

Stay tuned, and thanks for thinking with me on this front.

“The Essence of Narcissism”

Those who follow me on Twitter (@johnfea1) may recall that last week I got a bit obsessed with the present-day relevance of Christopher Lasch’s 1979 best-seller The Culture of Narcissism.

It seems that Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson has been having similar thoughts. Here is a taste of his most recent column “Trump’s Attack on John Lewis is the Essence of Narcissism.”

…The problem, however, runs deeper. Trump seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American story he is about to enter. He will lead a nation that accommodated a cruel exception to its founding creed; that bled and nearly died to recover its ideals; and that was only fully redeemed by the courage and moral clarity of the very people it had oppressed. People like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. People like John Lewis.

“Trump seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American story he is about to enter.” Brilliant.  Such a “feel” or “interest” would require some degree of empathy and self-sacrifice.

Somebody needs to issue a new edition of The Culture of Narcissism.  Eric Miller should edit it and write an introduction connecting it to our times.

 

What Would Christopher Lasch Think?

lasch

If you are a fan of cultural critic and historian Christopher Lasch you may want to check out this interview at the University of Rochester website with a 2015 Rochester Ph.D named Jeff Ludwig.

According to the article, Ludwig is working on a two-volume biography of Lasch.  Sounds like a great project, but Ludwig is going to have to work hard to top Eric Miller’s award- winning Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch.

Here is a taste of Ludwig’s interview:

Q: Do you wonder what Lasch would think of the current state of politics?

Ludwig: I met with Mrs. Nell Lasch, his widow, a couple of years ago and she said that she is often asked, “what do you think your husband would say about the X, Y, and Z that’s going on right now?” She always gives a version of this answer: “Kit [Lasch’s nickname] isn’t here to tell us and it’s tricky and dangerous to try to make assumptions based on what he wrote 20 or more years ago and fit it into modern debates.”

Lasch gets cited a lot during election cycles because much of what he had to say is still relevant—especially given the debate about the place of the privileged and of elites in American life. But, I always thought it striking that Nell said to me, “he’s not with us,” cautioning us against trying to find his voice in events that are well beyond his time by force-fitting him into modern debates. Even in his lifetime, people of all political persuasions—from radicals to far-right conservatives—could read into something from Lasch’s corpus of works that appealed to them. He’s been claimed by the left, right, and center, though in the end I think Lasch was advocating for a total paradigm shift away from these labels and the social order they buttressed.

Q: Lasch was a social critic over a span of forty years. Did his interests shift overtime?

Ludwig: That’s the thing that is tricky about Lasch. He never stayed on one topic for very long. His historiography shows that he was as interested in writing about race as he was about popular culture, and entertainment as much as sports. He was a celebrated writer for the New York Review of Books because they could hand him a subject and he would form an articulate, and often scathing and well thought out opinion of it. But that’s also why it took me 800 pages to just do volume one of his biography for my dissertation.

Read the entire interview here.

“Corporate Evangelicalism”

Money CultI recently finished reading Chris Lehmann’s The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity,and the Unmaking of the American Dream. I have been a fan of Lehmann’s writing for some time now. A former graduate student in history at the University of Rochester where he studied under the late Christopher Lasch, Lehmann is now the editor of the The Baffler,  a journal of cultural criticism steeped in economic populism of the left-leaning variety.

I have been reading the Baffler for about fifteen years, ever since I taught Thomas Frank‘s book The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism in a senior honors seminar on the history of American consumer culture. (Frank, who many may know for his book What’s the Matter With Kansas?, founded the journal).  I also appreciated Lehmann’s review of my friend Eric Miller’s biography of Lasch, Hope in a Scattering Time. So when I learned that Lehmann was writing a book about Christianity and capitalism I rushed to my nearest Barnes & Noble on the night before a vacation to Maine and bought the only copy in the store.

At some point I hope to do an extended review of The Money Cult, but I feel like I need to read it again before that happens.  It is a deeply challenging book.  Lehmann is a public intellectual who has taken the time to steep himself in the historiography of American religious history.  He clearly has an axe to grind against capitalism, and he sometimes fails to take Christianity seriously as a set of beliefs that motivate people to act in the world, but in the end he does a masterful job of showing the links between Christianity, capitalism, and the brand of Gnosticism that often disguises itself as American individualism.

I thought about Lehmann’s book as I read through Part 3 of Timothy Gloege’s series on “corporate evangelicalism” at The Anxious Bench blog.  Some of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will recognize Gloege from his book Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism.  (Back in June 2015 Gloege visited The Author’s Corner to discuss it).  Lehmann’s chapter on fundamentalism does not cite Gloege, but it would be much stronger if he had. Much of Gloege’s work, both in Guaranteed Pure and his Anxious Bench series, confirms the idea that American evangelicalism has been deeply shaped by market forces.

Here is a taste of Part 3 of Gloege’s “The Crisis of Corporate Evangelicalism”:

Imagine a world where families operate like corporations. Parents are management, but efficiency and profitably determine all aspects of family life. Children are both assets and employees; gloege-guaranteed-pureresources are allocated according to potential. And if things don’t work out with a troublesome teen or toddler? Well, you can send them packing, no harm, no foul. Children too can move to another family or negotiate with their parents for bedroom upgrades, extended curfews, and increased
allowance.

That disconcerted feeling you have right now? It’s probably similar to what an antebellum Protestant would experience encountering corporate evangelicalism. Never mind whether market-driven families are good or bad, it simply feels unnatural, right? Yet most evangelicals don’t think twice about “church shopping” based on programs, amenities, and “personal fit,” or devoting substantial portions of church budgets to the praise and worship industrial complex, or farming out the development of Vacation Bible School curriculum to an unknown corporation, or discarding a denominational affiliation like last year’s skinny jeans. It’s just what you do.

There is nothing intrinsically natural or unnatural about corporate evangelicalism. Religion is no less immune to business influence than family is to science, or business itself is to family. But such borrowings are not inevitable either. Some stick, others never take. They are, in other words, historically contingent, and as such they beg for an explanation.

Read the rest here.

 

Do Historians Privilege “Change Over Time” Over “Continuity?”

ChangeOverTimeBack in January 2007 historians Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke wrote a piece in Perspectives on History titled “What Does It Mean to Think Historically?”  In this essay Andrews and Burke synthesized the concepts that historians use to make sense of the world into five “C’s”.  They are change over time, causality, context, complexity, and contingency.

Over the years I have managed to get a lot of mileage out of this piece.  I discussed the 5’c of historical thinking in the introduction to my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction in 2011 (which will appear in a revised edition in 2016) and I elaborate even further on these ideas in my Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past in 2014.

If I were to add another “C” to the historical thinking toolbox it would be continuity. Andrews and Burke mention continuity as part of their discussion of “change over time.” They write:

The idea of change over time is perhaps the easiest of the C’s to grasp. Students readily acknowledge that we employ and struggle with technologies unavailable to our forebears, that we live by different laws, and that we enjoy different cultural pursuits. Moreover, students also note that some aspects of life remain the same across time. Many Europeans celebrate many of the same holidays that they did three or four hundred years ago, for instance, often using the same rituals and words to mark a day’s significance. Continuity thus comprises an integral part of the idea of change over time.

Whether we think about continuity as part of change over time, or describe it as a 6th “C,” I think most historians agree that is should be an important part of their thinking as they try to make sense of the past for their audiences.

This leads me to the question in the title of my post.  Do historians tend to privilege change over time over continuity?  I ask this because I have been part of a few social media conversations over the past week in which these issues have been raised.

The first conversation took place in a social media exchange over Christopher Lasch’s 1979 best-seller The Culture of Narcissism.  I spent some of my Memorial Day weekend re-reading Lasch with Donald Trump in mind.  As I read I kept asking myself what parts of Lasch’s analysis were unique to the late 1970s context in which he wrote and what parts of his analysis of narcissism were still relevant today, almost forty years later.

In the end, without going into details (you can find my tweets at #narcissism or @johnfea1), I found a great deal of similarity between the “culture of narcissism” of the 1970s and today’s “culture of narcissism.”  Yes, narcissism today has been greatly enhanced by the internet and social media, but many of the ideas Lasch put forth are still relevant.  In other words, I saw continuity between the past and the present.

A couple of historians, however, wanted to dismiss my argument about continuity.  They argued that Lasch is dated, overrated, and no longer useful.  Someone even questioned why I was reading him, as if his work, written in 1979, could say nothing to our contemporary culture.  When I said in this post that “things have not changed much,” one scholar, invoking change over time, called the phrase “baloney.” It seems here that my critics privilege change over time over continuity.

The second conversation took place over Twitter. (Always difficult to tackle these kinds of complex issues on Twitter, so what I say below should be taken with a small grain of salt).  I was discussing Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs with some scholars of Jefferson and some American religious historians.  In the process we got into a debate over the meaning of Christianity.  (Again, this is probably not the kind of debate that should take place over Twitter!).

Several folks in the debate appealed to change over time.  In other words, Christianity is always changing and redefining itself.  Jefferson, with his rejection of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the resurrection, still believed he was a Christian.  He was expanding the definition of Christianity, a belief that changes and has changed over time.

As I said in the debate, I have no doubt that Thomas Jefferson thought he was a Christian. This is a historical statement that I would agree with.  See my chapter on Jefferson’s religion in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?  It is entitled “Thomas Jefferson: Follower of Jesus.”

But I also think Jefferson was wrong to think he was a Christian.  Yes, I am more than willing to admit that this is a theological statement, not a historical one.  By suggesting that Jefferson was not a Christian some might say (although no one did in this debate) that I am inappropriately bringing my own beliefs about what is a Christian to bear on this conversation.  In other words, the fact that I am an orthodox Christian has crept into my work as a historian.  Maybe.  But if this is the case, I also wonder if the progressivism of many in the historical profession also functions as a type of theological or ideological view of the world that shapes their approach to the evidence.

To put it differently, and perhaps more historically, this debate also seems to have something to do with the tension between change over time and continuity in historical writing.  A historian who emphasizes change over time might argue that Jefferson is simply expanding the definition of what it means to be a Christian.  Thus to question Jefferson’s definition of Christianity could be a form of discrimination.

A historian who emphasizes continuity, however, might argue that there are certain beliefs that all Christians have embraced through time–non-negotiable or common-denominator beliefs such as the resurrection or the Trinity or the deity of Christ or the teachings of the Nicene Creed–that have always defined what it means to be a “Christian” and continue to define what it means to be a “Christian.”  Those who want to embrace an ever-changing definition of Christianity over time, without any continuity, are at risk of stripping the label “Christian” of any real meaning.  (I am sure some might be pleased with such a development).

So back to my original question:  I wonder if progressive historians tend to be more favorable to “change over time” than “continuity” when studying the past.

Just some thoughts here.  Still working on all of this, particularly as it relates to the relationship between history and theology.  But I do think its an issue worth thinking more about.

Christopher Lasch on the Humanities

2c7ec-laschnarcissismThings have not changed much in since Lasch wrote his 1979 best-seller The Culture of Narcissism

In the humanities, demoralization has reached the point of a general admission that humanistic study has nothing to contribute to an understanding of the modern world. Philosophers no longer explain the nature of things or pretend to tell us how to live. Students of literature treat the text not as a representation of the real world but as a reflection of the artist’s inner state of mind.  Historians admit to a ‘sense of the irrelevance of history,’ in David Donald’s words, ‘and of the bleakness of the new era we are entering.’  Because liberal culture has always depended so heavily on the study of history, the collapse of that culture finds an especially poignant illustration in the collapse of the historical faith, which formerly surrounded the record of public events with an aura of moral dignity, patriotism, and political optimism.  Historians in the past assumed that men learned from their previous mistakes.  Now that the future appears troubled and uncertain, the past appears ‘irrelevant’ even to those who devote their lives to investigating it.

Lasch, Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, 19.

“The People” and “Citizens”

we-the-people-graphic-3

Eric Miller writes so well that whenever I read him I am inspired to work harder on my own prose.

In his recent essay at Comment, Miller, a professor of history at Geneva College, discusses the meaning of “populism” in American history and how it is being used in contemporary politics..

Here is a taste:

Is the solution, then, to turn away in high-minded dismay from “the people”? Only if elitist, oligarchic rule is suddenly our best hope. Laclau, writing from within Latin America’s volatile political cauldron, confesses his “suspicion” that beneath the “disdainful rejection” of populism lies a “dismissal of politics tout court,” replaced by a dubious confidence “that the management of community is the concern of an administrative power whose source of legitimacy is a proper knowledge of what a ‘good’ community is.”

It was this deluded conceit that gave rise to democratic aspiration in the first place. There can be no evasion of politics. There is only bad politics or good politics. And good politics—and this is America’s founding claim—requires equality as an incarnate ideal.

Our governing political impulse must not be to despise the people but rather to understand ourselves as the people. The institutions of formation, the networks of care, and the broader political economy itself we must, as equals, seek to reform with the enlivening virtue that life itself requires. James Baldwin’s observation in 1963 was, after all, simply the summation of ancient wisdom: “The political institutions of any nation are always menaced and are ultimately controlled by the spiritual state of that nation.” It’s our spiritual state that most requires our constructive attention, in the hope that from civic renewal a politics will emerge befitting our heritage and fit for this age.

If the odds are against such reformation, it’s for precisely such reasons that hope exists. Hope, alongside faith and love, reminds us that we don’t need a perfect union. Just a more perfect union.

Read the entire post here.  This is long-form writing at its best.

George Scialabba on Christopher Lasch and the Family

Cultural critic George Scialabba revisits Christopher Lasch’s 1977 book Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged and tries to rescue Lasch’s argument from the feminists who bashed the book when it first appeared.


Sciaballa writes at The Baffler:

It was not feminism but mass production, political centralization, and the ideology of endless growth and ever-increasing consumption that had placed impossible strains on the family and made psychological maturity so difficult, Lasch argued. According to Askyourguide, an authority on psychic costs in individuals, every organism can flourish only within limits, at a certain scale. We have, in our social relations of authority and production, abandoned human scale, and the psychic costs are great.

The main developments of the last few decades, the information revolution and the triumph of neoliberalism, have only intensified the pressures besieging the family. Increased economic insecurity and the robotization of work—the central strategies of neoliberalism—have undermined the authority and self-confidence of parents still further and confronted adolescents with the prospect of adulthood as a war of all against all. Inside and outside the classroom, a tidal wave of advertising-saturated media aims to enlist children as fledgling consumers. The internet and social media diminish interaction among family members, especially across generations, while face-to-face encounters, with their greater emotional immediacy, are less and less the default mode of communication among adolescents. The hyperconnected life, for all its allure, is a centrifugal force.
The family, in whatever form, can only thrive within a healthy psychic ecology. It has gradually dawned on everyone who does not have a financial interest in denying it that massively tinkering with our physical environment is bound to have drastic effects on public health. It’s taking even longer to recognize that the same is true of our mental environment. The unending flood of commercial messaging, utterly empty of information or art, resembles the miasma of toxic particulates that infect the air of even the most developed countries. The continual stream of social messaging is analogous, in its lack of nourishing substance, to the ubiquitously available junk food that none of us can help succumbing to occasionally. The automation of work and the financialization of the economy leave most of us as bewildered and vulnerable as the progress of science and technology leave all but the intellectual elite, who can actually understand the seemingly magical forces that make our more sophisticated machines run.
It is just as the environmentalists (and, come to think of it, the Marxists and the Freudians) say: Everything is connected. Pull on one thread and the whole fabric unravels. To strengthen the family, we must rethink the division of labor, which means reevaluating productivity, efficiency, and growth, which means challenging the distribution of economic power and wealth. We may even need new conceptions of “rights,” “individuality,” and “freedom.”
Read the entire piece here.

David Brooks: Born Again?

Columbia Journalism Review is running a great piece of long-form journalism by Danny Funt, a “Delacorte Fellow” at Columbia Journalism School. The topic is David Brooks.

Funt  portrays Brooks as a New York Times columnist searching for spiritual and moral answers to life’s big questions. 

Here is a taste of his piece “The Transformation of David Brooks”:

DAVID BROOKS WAS STRUGGLING WITH SIN. More precisely, he was seeking a way to translate the Christian understanding of sin into secular terms for millions of readers. His emerging specialty, whether in his New York Times column or best-selling books, is distilling dense concepts for the mainstream. An ugly word for that, he notes, is popularizing. On religious topics, some might say proselytizing. He calls it reporting. “He’s the master,” says Princeton professor Robert George, a onetime adviser to Brooks. “Nobody is better at that than David.”
Explaining Christian theology has bedeviled Brooks for several years now, in writing his latest book, The Road to Character, and in recent columns, much to the bewilderment of readers. It’s strange partly because Brooks was raised Jewish, but also because the opinion pages are generally reserved for current events and politics. For counsel on political punditry, Brooks used to make a practice of interviewing three elected officials a day. To flesh out his sense of sin, he sought a different sort of expertise.  
He consulted Pastor Timothy Keller, founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and one of the country’s most prominent evangelicals. There are many explicitly Christian descriptions of sin: fallenness, brokenness, depravity. Keller suggested Brooks try a more neutral phrasing: “disordered love.” When we blab a secret at a party, for example, we misplace love of popularity over love of friendship.
Brooks recounted that guidance to me at a coffee shop in Arlington, Virginia, in between his regular Friday afternoon appearances on NPR’s All Things Considered and PBS’ NewsHour. He’s held those gigs for nearly two decades, and though he claims not to be bored with politics, his mind can seem elsewhere. When Brooks arrived that day at the bustling NPR headquarters in Washington, there was much to sort out. It was the day after the school shooting in Oregon, and the host wanted to know whether a gun crackdown was foreseeable. Would there be a contested race to replace John Boehner as Speaker? Did the Vatican really arrange the pope’s meeting with Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to certify gay marriages? E.J. Dionne Jr., the Washington Post columnist who is Brooks’ liberal counterpart on NPR, provided a bubbly stream of punditry. Brooks was almost listless. On air, his hot takes lacked spark.  
Within minutes of arriving, he’d bagged a book from a give-away shelf,The Opposite of Loneliness, Marina Keegan’s posthumous bestseller about starting over. “I’ve been thinking about writing a column on loneliness,” he explained.
That topic might justifiably be on his mind. Just that week, he’d flown alone to a Gordon College event in Boston, Hope College in Western Michigan, and Washington and Lee University in Virginia to promote his book. He takes the train alone to Yale most weeks to teach, and lives alone (he’s recently divorced) in an apartment near the National Cathedral, a 10-minute drive from the Times DC bureau. His office, on a hallway some call “Murderers’ Row” but which he dubbed “The Hall of Big Egos,” is between Maureen Dowd’s and Thomas Friedman’s, but there isn’t much water-cooler banter among Op-ed staff.
Brooks, 54, also now occupies a lonely journalistic space. When he began using his column several years ago to philosophize about personal morality, he says, “I felt like I was wandering off the map into weird territory.” Where to, exactly, remains mystifying. Brooks thinks a tradition of journalists fluent, or at least conversant, in moral concepts dissipated in recent decades. Theologians were walled off within their denominations, and public discourse about values grew dysfunctional. A life of “meaning” by today’s standard, he wrote in hisTimes column to begin 2015, “is flabby and vacuous, the product of a culture that has grown inarticulate about inner life.”
In general, Brooks contends, journalists balk at sharing moral viewpoints, and readers bristle upon receiving them. His critics find him an insufferable scold, a pompous sermonizer. “I think there is some allergy our culture has toward moral judgment of any kind,” he reflects. “There is a big relativistic strain through our society that if it feels good for you, then who am I to judge? I think that is fundamentally wrong, and I’d rather take the hits for being a moralizer than to have a public square where there’s no moral thought going on.” There is at least marginal evidence that this is changing. His book, published in April, spent 22 weeks on the Times best-seller list.
For Brooks, studying sin (and other moral categories) has been transformational. His political views have shifted before, quite publicly, but this is closer to an intellectual rebirth. Whether it is also a religious one, he won’t say.  
On his book tour over the summer, Brooks committed to a mission for the rest of his career: to restore comfortable, competent dialogue about what makes a virtuous life. If that is truly an area of cultural illiteracy, then journalists have neglected it. Like Brooks, their values have been out of order.

Brooks’s search for meaning reminds me a lot of Eric Miller’s portrayal of Christopher Lasch in Hope in a Scattering Time.  Both men had intellectual conversions. 

Lasch became disgusted with liberalism and the idea of “progress” that defines modern life.  In order to find purpose in his life he turned toward historically conservative values such as place, limits, family, community, virtue, and something akin to sin.  Lasch may have been close to embracing Christianity, but, as Miller argues, he never quite got there.

Brooks’s intellectual conversion seems similar.  He has been speaking at a lot of Christian colleges lately.  He hangs out with Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.  He is trying to make connections between his conservative ideals and the teachings of orthodox Christianity.

Is a conversion experience in Brooks’s future?  Has it happened already? Read Funt’s piece and decide for yourself.

Christopher Lasch and Localism

l to r: Fox, Miller, Westbrook, and Lasch-Quinn

Over at his blog In Media Res, Friends University political scientist Russell Arben Fox offers a summary post of a session on Christopher Lasch and localism at a recent Front Porch Republic gathering at SUNY-Geneseo.  The speakers were Eric Miller of Geneva College, Robert Westbrook of the University of Rochester, and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn of Syracuse University (and Lasch’s daughter).  According to Fox, the session was tied together by the theme of localism.

Here is a taste of Fox’s post:

In the presentation given by Eric Miller–whose recent biography and exploration of the writings of Lasch is must-reading–the unstated binary in question, it seemed to me, was Lasch’s revolt against the overly confident, secular and liberal progressivism of the mid-20th-century America’s “new class” of professionals, writers, and intellectuals…alongside the fact that, well, that was the class which Lasch was a part of, the class which enabled him (a kid from Omaha) to have access to the cosmopolitan “republic of letters” and the life of the mind. In other words, Lasch’s criticism of the flattening corporate, governmental, and therapeutic gigantism America’s postwar liberal institutions–their lack of democracy, their condescending compassion, their absence of respect for working class and religious ways of life–constituted a populist defense of the local, and yet that very revolt was, for Lasch, justified in light of a more transcendent tribunal: the judgment of civilization, the good life, and (though Lasch himself fought against admitting this) a kind of Christian decency. Lasch knew that the best case for higher things had to made through an embrace of the particular–though the particular, in itself, could only provide the tiniest evidence of the larger and better sensibilities which give it credence. This is the intellectual localist dilemma in a nutshell: the best understanding of why one’s own place and practices ought to be loved and defended involves arguments which partake of something which transcends the local entirely.

Robert Westbrook, a colleague of Lasch’s, reflected on a much more stark binary: how the localist, in bringing into her affections for a place and its practices a sense of ends, makes the quotidian everyday-ness of our lives that much more valuable…and yet there could be no greater expression of narcissism than to fail to accept that our own daily-ness will be superseded by that of others, soon enough. The occasion for this was Lasch’s own early death from cancer, and how he furiously railed (though he later apologized) against those doctors that attempted to turn him, in his words, into a “professional patient.” Westbrook made reference to Martin Heidegger, a philosopher whom Lasch very likely never read, and his understanding that it is the ultimate limit upon our sense of being–that is, our deaths–which makes possible an authentic sense of care. Lasch’s writings and example point localists towards that which has inspired so many poets: the brute fact that our ability to most fully be rooted in and contribute to a community is inextricably tied up with the fact that, it too, is a passing thing.

Finally Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn, Lasch’s daughter and one of his most skilled literary executors, brought the matter of binaries forward explicitly, choosing to focus on her father’s distinction between “nostalgia” and “memory,” and making a moderate defense of the former, which Lasch had criticized. Her argument that the former can trigger and contribute to the latter found a real-world example in the discussion period afterward, when one student shared the story of a tragic death in his hometown, a death which had led to acts of memorialization which, as time went by, had come to be experienced by the deceased’s family members as a painful act of “mere” nostalgia. The discussion, then, turned to matters of risk. Since nostalgia is a feeling we have for something we’ve loved and lost, any recovery of such things is bound to involve regret and pain, something that will be, inevitably, unevenly experienced across a community. Yet is the alternative to privatize pain entirely? That robs us of one of the primary reasons why localism presents itself as an answer to individualism in the first place. Localism, by making possible the sort of practices which enable real and meaningful connections to emerge between people, also makes possible a critical engagement with memory, thus hopefully preventing it from either turning into a mostly meaningless mass and routine genuflection, or being forgotten entirely.

Chalk One Up for Progress

On Wednesday Barack Obama extolled the virtues of progress at a White House press event.  Here is what he said:


The truth of the matter is that for all the challenges we face, all the problems that we have,…if you had to choose any moment to be born in human history, not knowing what your position was going to be, who you were going to be, you’d choose this time. The world is less violent than it has ever been. It is healthier than it has ever been. It is more tolerant than it has ever been. It is better fed then it’s ever been. It is more educated than it’s ever been.
As a historian it is hard to argue with Obama here.  I wonder what Christopher Lasch would say?

More Christopher Lasch

Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations is now about thirty-four years old, but this has not stopped bloggers, commentators, and pundits from turning to this book to diagnose the culture of the so-called millennial generation.

See, for example, Daniel Saunders’s recent piece at “The Common Vision” entitled “America the Narcissist.” Much of the post is a response to Joel Stein’s recent Time Magazine cover story on the millennials. Here is a taste:

It is a shame that Stein’s Time article only casually mentions Christopher Lasch’s seminal book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations, which was published in 1979, just one year before Stein’s cutoff date for “Gen Y” status. Stein should have found in Lasch a more solid framework for his cultural commentary than in the pop psychology he cites; Lasch, a neo-Marxian leftist turned Freudian conservative, displays an intellectual rigor that makes his prescient criticism of America’s psychological decay just as compelling for a reader in 2013 as for a reader in 1979. Moreover, Lasch escapes the cyclical generational feud perpetuated today by pointing the finger not at “the novelties of youth” but at the stagnation of the West’s dual heritage of individualism and capitalism, the seed of which was planted way back in the late Middle Ages and which came to fruition after the Industrial Revolution.

Is narcissism an inevitable result of modern life?  I think Lasch would answer in the affirmative.  And now for a more theological question:  Does narcissism best describe the human condition at rest?

For some thoughts on the study of history as an antidote to narcissism check out this book.