Once More Into the Wind

I repost here a piece I wrote in 2012 to show how much impact such posts have on current affairs (!) and because I do think I stumbled on a few good points — with the help of other seminal thinkers. I have added a few comments to bring the post up to date. 

The revelations highlighted in a Chronicle of Higher Education recently about the “Millennials” and the study that shows them to be much more “me” oriented than previously thought is really not all that surprising. The phrase “the me generation” has been used for some time now, and what this recent study shows is that “generation” should be plural.

Christopher Lasch wrote the definitive book on the subject back in 1979 when he noted that

“.. .the collapse of parental authority reflects the collapse of ‘ancient impulse controls’ and the shift from a society in which the values of self-restraint were ascendant to one in which more and more recognition was given to the values of self-indulgence.” (The Culture of Narcissism)

Increased “self-indulgence” in the absence of a strong parental authority figure, according to Lasch, leads invariably to narcissism. In a word, permissive parents in the 1960s and 1970s were regarded by a prominent social psychologist as the root cause of the narcissism that was becoming prevalent at that time and has grown exponentially since then.

But, if this does not astonish us, we can see the same insight suggested in the pages of a novel written 50 years before Lasch wrote his book. Edith Wharton, in Twilight Sleep  is making fun of Mrs. Pauline Manford the flighty, empty-headed do-gooder who seems to be able to embrace numerous contradictory ideas comfortably at the same time. She is busy at one point in the novel forming a League of Mothers (!)

“against the dreadful practice of telling children they were naughty. Had she ever stopped to think what an abominable thing it was to suggest to a pure innocent child that there was such a thing in the world as Being Naughty? What did it open the door to? Why to the idea of Wickedness, the most awful idea in the whole world. . . how could there be bad children if children were never allowed to know that such a thing as badness existed?”

Now there’s logic at work for you!

Though permissive parenting was a theme soon to be picked up by every pop-psychologist who could find a publisher, it is possible that Wharton may have been poking gentle fun at A.S.Neill’s Summerhill project which had started up in England a few years earlier. Summerhill was a “free school”  which had no requirements whatever and just let the kids hang out until something struck their fancy at which point, presumably, they would start to learn. The assumption was that they would not learn anything unless they were interested in it, which is absurd — though it is certainly easier if the child is interested. That’s the teacher’s job, after all.

Cassandra before a burning Troy.

If Wharton was making fun of the idea, she was joined by such eminent thinkers as Bertrand Russel, among others, who ridiculed Neill’s experiment. But to no avail. The idea caught on in England and gave great impetus to the “child-oriented” progressive movement in the schools in this country as well. It is still very much in evidence in the self-esteem movement which is simply the latest episode in this rather tiresome and ill-conceived “never-say-no” educational “theory.” In fact, the entire movement, combined with an economic system that encourages competition among individuals and the accumulation of as much stuff as possible in the shortest amount of time, leads to generations of students who have turned into adults preoccupied with themselves and their own well-being which they pretty much define in terms of material success.

Thus, much of the fuss over the “Millennials” is misplaced and should really be focused on the tendency toward cultural narcissism that Christopher Lasch identified in 1979 and which began at least as early as 1924 when A.S. Neill started Summerhill. Those of us who worry about the continued survival of Western civilization are almost certainly joining the Cassandras that have spoken up throughout history. The ship has sailed and the wisest course of action might well be to simply wait and see where it ends up. The problem with this laissez-faire attitude, however, is that narcissism leads to excessive violence, as Lasch has shown, and a society made up of expanding numbers of violent people preoccupied with their own material well-being is not likely to care a helluva lot about those around them or the world they share in common with millions of others on the planet.

How does this relate to the behavior of so many around the world who seem oblivious to the fact that they endanger others when they fail to wear a face mask during a pandemic? Need I ask?

How Ironic!

Liberals might not like reading John Carroll’s books. He takes what he calls “radical liberalism” to task and blames those well-meaning folks who crave greater human freedom for many of the ills of contemporary culture. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that it is precisely those who demand greater human freedom that have placed the chains of fear and uncertainty on modern men and women. He does not deny that liberalism has been a good thing. As he says,

“Our civilization has benefitted prodigiously from the liberal impulse, but always in cases in which it has operated in a circumscribed manner, within a securely ordered institutional environment.”

Indeed. True freedom demands restraint. The absence of restraint is not freedom, it is chaos and misery. It is the French Revolution. A case in point is capitalism which is one of the many fruits of liberal thinking — as set forth in the writings of Adam Smith in the eighteenth century at the height of the Enlightenment when liberal thinking was all the rage. Smith was convinced that the “invisible hand” would guide the capitalist and that in the end there would be greater prosperity for all. Smith was a part of the Scottish Moral Sense School. This was group of thinkers who were convinced that there is a core of human sympathy in all people and that would tend toward generosity and compassion. The urges of the capitalist for more and more profit would be restrained by their natural sympathy for others. We know how that turned out.

Carroll is convinced that it is liberalism’s excesses and naivety (as evidenced in the case of Adam Smith) that are at the heart of the problem:

“Liberalism’s psychological assumption about humans — leave them alone and they will flourish — is naive. It is blind to inclinations to greed, violence, and evil, inclinations that are an inherent part of human egoism. It assumes a capacity for self-restraint that our entire history contradicts. In practice, the upper middle class, without the constraints of culture, has been left with one value– freedom — which has become intoxicating. Liberalism has proven the perfect rationalization for selfishness.”

The classic example is that of the liberal parents who refuse to reprimand their child for throwing a rock through a window because he was just “expressing himself.” We wouldn’t want to thwart his creative growth! And those same parents send their spoiled child off to school where  underpaid teachers are not allowed to discipline the children but are somehow supposed to remedy the mistakes the parents have made.

Radical liberal thinking led to the concept of the “free school” initiated by A.S. Neill in England (following Rousseau) which rebelled against the excessive Victorian restraints that needed to be loosened — but not tossed aside. Restraint is not in itself a bad thing. Indeed, as Carroll and many other thinkers have insisted, restraint is what has led to civilization and to what we like to call “progress.” It’s also the key to sound character. The problem with liberalism, for all its good intentions (and they are very real, as human beings struggled against authority and unrestrained power for centuries and demanded their freedom with good reason) is that

“its adherents never know when to stop. Once unleashed, liberalism keeps going until no authority is left; it has no principle of restraint. The threat, since 1960 [ the time of the counter-culture], has been of excessive liberalization rendering schools ineffective in the struggle to keep discipline.”

This has certainly been the case in the schools where the free school ideal — which led to “progressive education” and the self-esteem movement in the lower grades — has left the lower middle classes, especially, illiterate and therefore unable to take advantage of opportunities for economic advancement, thus breeding resentment in a great many who feel left out. The result of all this, as Carroll sees it, is what he calls “rancour.”

“Nietzsche saw rancour as the prototypical modern disease. It manifests itself in resentment against another person, another group or party, or another body of ideas”

Rancour infects not only the intellectual and cultural elite who in their blind determination to increase human freedom have become nihilistic and turned against their own history and against Western Civilization generally; it is especially prevalent in the lower middle class where millions of people in the West feel trapped and ignored by those who have the power and make the decisions that directly affect their lives.

The gap between the “upper middle-class,” the intellectual elite and those with money and power, on the one hand, and the  cultural “lower middle classes” (those who watch the soaps, read the Enquirer, and admire Clint Eastwood), on the other, has grown wider of late. We may find ourselves with an explanation here for the fact that a man who is all ego has become president of the most powerful nation on earth: those who have felt left out experience this rancour and, blind to the man’s faults, see only Clint Eastwood or John Wayne. These folks also hate restraint and want quick solutions to problems that are far too large for them to wrap their heads around — especially as they cannot read, write or figure and have been provided with toys to entertain them and keep them distracted.

Thus, as John Carroll would have it, the “radical liberals” are hoist by their own petard. Those whose only value is unlimited human freedom now find themselves imprisoned in a world of unrestrained greed and self-interest surrounded by unrestrained ignorance, resentment, and even violence. How ironic.