The Lonely Crowd III: American Moral Progress 1950-1969

In the year 1969, David Riesman wrote a preface for the third edition of The Lonely Crowd. Within this preface, he raised the question of American moral progress and asked if the United States was advancing or regressing in its moral character. Specifically, he wanted to know if the United States had been “improving” or “worsening” in a moral context since the year 1950, when the first edition of The Lonely Crowd was published.

We are still asking ourselves this question today, several decades after Riesman first posed it, and several years after Riesman and his work, including The Lonely Crowd, passed into obscurity. Not only is this question still active, but, within the last few years, it has come to dominate the forefront of our political consciousness. We are constantly debating and arguing over whether America has “improved” in its moral function—not just since the year 1950, but in the five hundred years since the New World was discovered.

Obviously, this question generated renewed attention, and obtained a newfound sense of urgency, after the election of 2016. In the aftermath of that notorious presidential contest, the United States commenced an arduous and often traumatizing process of attempted self-examination. There was, and continues to be, an almost obsessive effort to evaluate ourselves, and the country in which we live, and to determine whether we are living in a time of moral decline or moral growth. Basically, we are attempting to measure our own moral progress, and to find out if we are “on the right track”.

For some reason, this question became extremely important to us after Trump defeated Hillary. It even seems to have become the quintessential question of our current political epoch: liberals and conservatives are defined today, not so much by their political positions, but rather by their answers to this question of American moral progress. In short, liberals appear to believe we are moving in the “proper” moral direction, whereas conservatives appear to believe the “proper” moral code can be found in the recent past.

Then again, it could be that this has always been the fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives, and that this difference became clear only after the election of 2016. In any event, it is obvious that the election of 2016 made this question so much more fascinating to the masses, most of whom had never taken any serious interest in politics before; and because they knew very little of politics before the election of 2016, many of them have come to believe that this question of American moral progress is a new question, a question that emerged only recently.

However, our reading of The Lonely Crowd proves that this question is neither new nor recent. As we can see, Americans were asking themselves this question at least as far back as 1969, and often enough for David Riesman to note it. In fact, there are many similarities between the political culture of the 1960s and the political culture of today, with both being characterized by turbulent polarization and factional conflict. The potential for sectarian conflict, and the deterioration of our social fabric, probably felt just as pertinent in the 1960s as it does today—and we must remember that, in the immediate present, we are not contending with a situation comparable to the Vietnam War.

With that being said, here is what David Riesman wrote in response to this question of American moral progress, as he understood it in the year 1969:

“In my opinion American society is not basically more evil and brutal than heretofore. In spite of war and preparation for war, and in the face of heightening racial tension, the lessening of bigotries described in The Lonely Crowd has continued; improved education and the more liberal mass media have had an impact on traditional xenophobia. The fact that progressive measures, men, and attitudes have not brought peace at home or abroad keeps Americans polarized between our generous impulses and our fears.”

Before we say anything more, we should make it absolutely clear that we are not required to accept Mr. Riesman’s answer as our own. As we continue our analysis of The Lonely Crowd, we will find many instances in which Mr. Riesman was mistaken, both as a contemporary critic and as a futurist visionary. We are not quoting Mr. Riesman in order to present his opinion as fact, but we may find his commentary helpful in expanding our own political and historical perspective. I have modified many of my own views after reading The Lonely Crowd, even though I often disagreed with Mr. Riesman.

In this specific case, I am not entirely sure whether I agree or disagree with him. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate our moral condition against any kind of definitive standard, let alone by such arbitrary descriptions of “better” or “worse”. Let us consider the Vietnam War: although it seems to be rather obvious to me that the Vietnam War was “immoral”, I am not sure that it was any more “immoral” than any number of wars that preceded it. Even if we were to declare that the Vietnam War was nothing more than an imperialist conquest undertaken in the cynical pursuit of power and wealth, couldn’t we say the same of the Spanish-American War? Couldn’t we say the same about the Korean War? Couldn’t we say the same about the First World War? Certainly, we can make a persuasive case for the “immorality” of the Vietnam War, but it is much more difficult to suggest this particular conflict somehow signified a decisive shift, positively or negatively, for our American moral character.

On the other hand, it would be downright ridiculous to suggest that there was no relevant change in our moral character in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. To my understanding, the change lay within our evaluation of our moral character, which became markedly critical as the corpses piled up in the Far East. It seems as though the grotesquery and tragedy of the Vietnam War inspired a sense of disgust and indignation in many Americans, who came to look upon their country with a feeling of heartbroken bitterness. They accused the United States of betraying itself, and betraying its own moral cause, by pursuing its unbecoming objectives in Vietnam, which, they believed, was much more “immoral” than anything it had done thitherto.

In my opinion, this question of “relative immorality” usually inhibits contemplation, as it demands a comparative judgement before we have even made an initial judgement. Riesman, however, was more concerned about inhibiting action, as he feared the destructive consequences of widespread political pessimism. Let us read a second quote of his, taken from the same preface of 1969:

“The sense of profound malaise many of us have about our society today reflects our nearly insuperable problems, but it also reflects our heightened expectation as to the society we should be and the contribution we should be making to the world … Measured despair of our society, expressed publicly, can serve to warn us against catastrophe and to arouse us from somnolence; extravagant despair, however, can lead some to withdraw from political and cultural action while others feel justified in acts of destructiveness and fail to grasp the potentials for nonviolent change that do exist.”

At this point, we might allow ourselves to apply Mr. Riesman’s analysis, written more than fifty years ago, to the political culture of our own time. Our political culture offers a limitless abundance of cause for “extravagant despair”, and because our political culture has effectively merged with our popular culture, this dispiriting material is now reaching the widest possible audience. There is a relentless, endless challenge to resist the temptation of “extravagant despair”, and many of us have given up—with good reason. I myself have frequently entertained the idea of shutting myself off to the political culture completely, as if this were somehow possible. Presumably, this is what Riesman means when he observes how some people “withdraw from political and cultural action”.

Certainly, he is right when he says, “Others feel justified in acts of destructiveness and fail to grasp the potentials for nonviolent change that do exist.” As we mentioned earlier, the election of 2016 gave rise to a widespread political reawakening, which, obviously, necessitated a recalibration of our political-moral code. This process is still ongoing, but it is rather obvious that, throughout this process, we are losing patience for our political opponents, and we are probably coming to a point where we can no longer tolerate them. Accordingly, many people have pursued the “destruction” of their political opponents—although destruction can mean different things in different situations.

In the aftermath of 2016, there have been efforts not only to destroy, but to rationalize destruction as a necessary measure in the campaign against our political opponents. We have been told, again and again, that our political opponents are jeopardizing our moral progress, leaving us to conclude that they must be stopped “by any means necessary”. This message is intended for the masses, the masses who, we will recall, began only recently to contemplate politics, history, and morality, and who therefore cannot see through the moralistic sophistry required to deliver this argument—an argument that is really a call to arms.

However, we cannot pursue this train of thought much further before we succumb to our own form of “extravagant despair”. In contemplating this, we can envision all too easily a foreboding future in which there is no longer any hope left for anyone at all. Perhaps this future will come to fruition, but we cannot surrender to it prematurely, and thereby facilitate a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of losing ourselves in our arbitrary vision for the future, and instead of arguing over whether the United States is “going to be” either “better” or “worse”, we would do well first to try to understand our moral development hitherto, and then, based on this, attempt to determine the direction in which we may be moving.

The Lonely Crowd, Part II: Optimism and Pessimism in the 1950s and 1960s

            The Lonely Crowd was originally published in the year 1950, but almost every printing of the book available today includes a preface written for the third edition of 1969. David Riesman, who wrote the book in collaboration with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney, wrote this preface, as well, and he acknowledges therein the challenge of introducing the book to a different generation of readers. Although it may be difficult for us, living in the year 2022, to appreciate the tremendous psychological change that must have occurred among the American people between the years 1950 and 1969, Mr. Riesman witnessed it firsthand and experienced it personally, and he shares with us this summary of his observations:

“Obviously, the problems that preoccupy attentive Americans now [in 1969] are different from those preoccupying people when The Lonely Crowd was written [in 1950]; and, among the reflective, an atmosphere of what seems to me extravagant self-criticism has succeeded an earlier tendency toward glib self-satisfaction.”

If this perspective seems to us at all passe or unremarkable, it is only because, in our time, it has become so prominent and so widespread. It may even be the majority perspective, or at least one in which the majority of Americans could find common ground. We understand exactly what Mr. Reisman means when he speaks of the 1950s as a period of “glib self-satisfaction”: as soon as he says this, we envision the adolescents of the time, wearing deliberately gaudy clothing, driving around in luxurious cars, and spending money at diners, record stores, and drive-in movie theaters. We envision them living in a state of perpetual bliss, enjoying themselves in the moment, without any premonition of the troubles and struggles that were soon to come.

We hardly need to say that this vision of ours is only the shallowest stereotype, a dull cliché that has been promoted largely by Hollywood. Nevertheless, the 1950s were, indisputably, a time of accelerated consumer consumption: as everybody already knows, Americans were buying, and using, and discarding with a perpetually hastening pace throughout the Eisenhower era, and this is symbolized in our image of teenagers dressing up and driving around and having a good time. We are imagining them behaving as consumers, and obtaining considerable consumer satisfaction. On this point, everyone appears to be in agreement—where we differ from one another is in our view of the moral and ethical values underlying this behavior, but we will not address that controversy today.

Mr. Riesman’s perspective is accessible to us also because we understand exactly what he means when he speaks of “extravagant self-criticism”. Clearly, he is speaking of the Vietnam era, which was still ongoing at the time he wrote his preface. When we envision the Vietnam era, we envision constant political conflict and dispute, pertaining not only to the war in Vietnam but also to racial tensions and other social issues. Even the name of the period suggests that it was defined by its contentious political condition, as though this were the foundation upon which all else would come to be based. Maybe this is so, or maybe it is only another superficial stereotype, one that was developed and distributed by the mass media. In either case, we recognize that there was a difficult political situation forming at the time, and that many Americans responded to it with a feeling of despair and pessimism for the future of their country.

How long did this despondent sentiment reign in the United States? We cannot answer this question precisely, not at this time, but we can affirm it did eventually yield to yet another state of “glib self-satisfaction”. This latter state, by all appearances, became the majority condition at some point in the 1980s, approximately twenty years after the epoch of “extravagant self-criticism”. But the “glib self-satisfaction” of the 1980s was eventually challenged by a new mode of “extravagant self-criticism”, which seemed to obtain popular appeal at some point in the 2000s. In other words, we have been observing this cycle of sentiment in motion for three quarters of a century, if not for much longer than that: I suspect there are books, written long before The Lonely Crowd, in which this same phenomenon is observed, though probably described with different terminology.

This reminds me of a meme that is currently popular among certain cynics. It is a picture of an American teenager standing outside the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in August 2001 and saying to himself, “I’m so excited for the prosperous future awaiting my generation!” It is interesting to consider how quickly these shifts in popular sentiment occur, with optimism giving way to hopelessness, and hopelessness giving way to optimism, within a span of less than twenty years—not even a full generation. It doesn’t even seem remarkable to us that Riesman felt himself prepared to summarize the 1950s when he was not yet a full decade removed from their conclusion.

Having said all of this, naturally we are keen to know what to make of it. Do we rest assured in the historical probability that a relatively carefree state of “glib self-satisfaction” will eventually succeed our current time of “extravagant self-criticism”? Or do we despair for the great likelihood that we will never completely overcome our tendency for “extravagant self-criticism”? Personally, I think it is foolish to expect our cultural conditions to serve us, or satisfy us, with opportunities for “glib self-satisfaction”, and I think it is equally foolish to lament their inability to do so, and to respond to our own disappointment with despair. There is reason for humanity to feel both pride and shame, and there is a time to reflect on one and a time to reflect on the other. And I wonder if we are living, not in an era defined by one or the other, but in an era defined by a conflict between the two.

The Lonely Crowd, Part I: Parenting Philosophy Among Millennials and Boomers

            Before we begin, I would like to address the Overwritten audience. My readers, listeners, and even my viewers, few though they are, deserve an explanation for my recent reticence, as well as an understanding of what I intend for Overwritten henceforth to be.

            Hitherto, Overwritten has been dedicated mostly to news commentary, especially political news commentary. In recent years, however, I have come to question the validity and integrity of this practice: the independent media is overrun with political news commentators, all of whom are expected to issue “hot takes” and instantaneous reactions to anything and everything that emerges in the broader political media. My analysis, based on years of observation and direct participation, is that this commentary is little more than ideological reactionaryism, and much of it (if not all of it) is disproven in time, often in very little time, as additional facts and information surface.

            If we wish to understand the modern world, then ideological reactionaryism obviously will not do—and ideological reactionaryism appears to me to be an inevitable feature of political news commentary. It makes no difference whether the commentators are “independent” or not, for their reactions are still formed in myopia and ignorance. Jimmy Dore and Caitlin Johnstone seem to be the biggest names in the independent political media, but if we review what they said months ago and compare it to what they say today, then it immediately becomes obvious how little they knew then, and how little they understand now. They apply their personal biases to their consumption of “the news”, with predictably unenlightening results.

            A better approach, and certainly part of the correct approach, is not to immerse ourselves in the chaotic noise of the present, but to look backwards, to read the words of thoughtful men and women who lived and observed and studied long ago. The purpose of this practice is to understand the present as part of a historical continuum, not as the isolated byproduct of the past century alone. How can we understand the alienation of postindustrial humanity without reading Dostoyevsky? How can we understand the decline of tradition without reading Plato? How can we understand our collective lack of values without reading Nietzsche? Obviously, we cannot, and no reactionary ideologue will serve as an effective substitute.

            Accordingly, I would like Overwritten to move away from political news commentary and move towards literary analysis. The best videos on the Overwritten channel were those I produced with my wife, Christy, when we read and discussed the writing of Machiavelli. We found his work to be, not just compelling, but also deeply relevant to the modern world. My goal is for Overwritten to become known for this type of content, for the ideological reactionaryism that was for so long its staple.

            With that being said, I would like to discuss the book I am reading now: The Lonely Crowd, a nonfiction work of sociological analysis written by David Riesman, co-written by Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney, and originally published in the year 1950. It is interesting (and revealing) that a modern audience would consider this book “old”, even though it was published less than seventy-five years ago. There is a strong antihistorical tendency among modern Americans, including those who were born around the time The Lonely Crowd was published . . . but that is a discussion for a different day.

            Today, I would like to discuss David Riesman’s observations of his own time and compare his analysis to what we might we find in the world today. As I mentioned, he published The Lonely Crowd in the year 1950, when America was just beginning to emerge from the Second World War and establishing itself as a global economic superpower. Under these conditions, the baby boomers were coming into being—although I’m not sure the term “baby boomer” had even been coined by the time this book was published. In the year 1950, the oldest of the baby boomers were still under the age of five, and so, they could not have been understood as an autonomous, isolated category of individuals with distinctive personal characteristics. How foreign this is to the modern world, where we have a very defined and specific image of “the boomers”, and frequently speak of their imminent demise!

            I mention this because Mr. Riesman writes at some length about changes in parenting and child rearing in the United States—changes that were still recent in his time, but which had become widespread by the year 1950. He describes the newfound sensitivity and receptivity of American parents to their children’s wants, and the parents’ own desires to fulfill those wants. He observes a shift from previous systems of parenting—whereby children were molded and shaped according to external expectations, either their parents’ or society’s—to a modern philosophy, one in which the children seem to determine standards and values.

Obviously, this approach to parenting is not uncontroversial. In Riesman’s time as well as our own, it has suffered criticism, much of it quite convincing, for producing pampered and entitled children who go on to become dysfunctional and incompetent adults. However, in our time this is still believed to be a recent phenomenon: we believe that this practice of “indulging” children did not begin, or at least become widespread, until the 1980s or the 1990s. It is said to be the millennial condition, for millennials, we are told, were the first to be coddled and spoiled en masse by their permissive, shortsighted parents.

Without considering whether millennials are, in fact, pampered and indulged, we know this alleged phenomenon is no longer “recent”. When Riesman refers to “the youth” of his time, he is referring to people born in the 1930s, possibly even the 1920s: he is referring to people who were coming to the end of their adolescence at the time The Lonely Crowd was published. These are the people who would come to raise the baby boomers, their children, under a certain set of standards and values: in all likelihood, they were extending their own “tradition” of indulgence to the baby boomers.

As illuminating as his study was and is, I am sure Mr. Riesman would have been the first to admit that he sometimes painted with a rather broad brush. He never intended to suggest that every member of the Greatest Generation and the Silent Generation—these are the generations that raised the baby boomers—was pampered and indulged, but he does prove that this phenomenon was expanding, however gradually, throughout the first half of the twentieth century. It may not have become widespread until the year 1950, or some time thereafter, but he knew the conditions for such a phenomenon were being cultivated in the meantime. Undoubtedly, these conditions met a “perfect storm” of sorts in the 1950s, when affluence flourished in America, and when unbridled consumerism became a standard and a norm.

I suspect this information will come as a great surprise to a great many people. At the very least, it informs our understanding of the cultural war currently being waged between the boomers and the millennials. The boomers describe the millennials as spoiled brats who have deviated from the respectable American tradition of rugged discipline, and while there may be some legitimacy to this accusation, it is clear enough from reading The Lonely Crowd that the millennials have not committed a radical break from their forefathers. They may be “spoiled brats”, but they are fourth- or fifth-generation spoiled brats, with the boomers being the first or second generation.

Personally, I don’t think this dimension of the culture war is particularly productive. There is little sense in blaming people for the way they were raised, and without a personal appreciation of historical conditions, we might not fairly blame the parents for raising their children in this way. There is, however, reason to suspect the boomers’ criticism of the millennials is, to some extent, a matter of psychological projection, a romantic revision of their own personal history. Furthermore, we might ask whether the romantic revision of American history, whether the historical narrative that the boomers accepted and promoted, is itself influenced by some of the same tendencies.

At the same time, we must not reduce this insight to a convenient reason to rail against the boomers. That would be a wretched repurposing of Riesman’s work, if not its effective negation. Instead, we must approach the problem of indulgent parenting anew, contextualizing it as part of a multi-generational phenomenon. This phenomenon did not begin with the millennials, but maybe it is nearing its culmination with them? Maybe the consequences of this philosophy of parenting are finally manifesting themselves clearly, and will become increasingly clear with each generation that adheres thereunto?

We will continue our discussion of The Lonely Crowd in the future, but today, we will end, not with a quotation by David Riesman, but an aphorism written by none other than Nietzsche: “When we find we must change our opinion of a man, we hold the inconvenience he causes us very much against him.”

DMX and “Never Die Alone”

When I learned that Earl “DMX” Simmons had fallen into a coma from which he would never emerge, the film Never Die Alone was the first thing to come to mind—as it has always been the first thing to come to mind any time I’ve heard anything about that man. This time, however, the connotation was almost chillingly fitting, because Never Die Alone begins with an image of King David, a fictional drug dealer and serial murderer portrayed by DMX, lying lifeless in a coffin. The film is centered on this character’s death, with every scene and every happenstance either catalyzing or resulting from his death. Such a relentless fascination with such a gloomy subject is probably the single biggest reason why I enjoyed the film so thoroughly when I first watched it at the age of twelve.

The unfortunately predictable question follows: “Why was a twelve-year-old white boy watching this movie in the first place?” I remember wandering the cul-de-sacs near my rural home in New Hampshire, probably fantasizing about my own suicidal demise, when I noticed that my neighbors were hosting a yard sale. Among the collection of DVDs that they were offering for two dollars apiece was a battered, weathered copy of Never Die Alone—which I had heard about, but never really thought about, when it was released to theaters a few months before. I returned to my house, found eight quarters in my piggy bank, and hurried back to the yard sale, sincerely concerned that someone else might have already taken advantage of this bargain.

Had the events of that day unfolded differently, I would have joined humanity’s effective entirety in forgetting, or involuntarily disregarding, that film altogether. Never Die Alone grossed less than six million dollars at the American-Canadian box office and almost nothing in foreign markets, where there is no discernible interest in films about the African-American criminal subculture. The so-called professional film critics in the United States watched it, but they didn’t find much value in it; I remember one writer, in a review that has long since been lost, making the rather unoriginal remark that describing its premise was “like eating tomato soup with a fork. It can be done, but God knows how.” Even Matt Cale, the single greatest influence on my adolescence, wrote a vicious review upon the film’s home media release, to which we will link here:

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A Critique of Lisa Wehrstedt’s Review of “Jennifer’s Body”

Original article:

It is not at all surprising to see the bourgeois feminists attempt to revitalize Jennifer’s Body in this political climate. I’ve seen the film several times since it was released in the autumn of 2009, and while I’m still not convinced that it’s a good film, I’ve long suspected that it was only a matter of time before the ideologues and dilletantes discovered it and weaponized it to further their cursory agendas. For the past six years, the BBC has published a glut of post-feminist and pseudo-feminist reevaluations of popular art, of which Nicholas Barber’s lamentation of the public reception of The Silence of the Lambs was perhaps the most memorably boorish example. On Wednesday, the seventh of April, the same media outlet printed an assessment of Jennifer’s Body, written by Lisa Wehrstedt—an author hitherto unknown to me personally, but regretfully familiar philosophically.

As Wehrstedt did, we will assume that our readers are unfamiliar with the film in question, though for very different reasons. Jennifer’s Body tells the story of two teenage girls—the titular character portrayed by Megan Fox, and her best friend, Needy, portrayed by Amanda Seyfried—undergoing their uneventful adolescence in a midwestern American town. One night, a group of incompetent Satanists kidnap Jennifer and attempt to slaughter her for ritualistic purposes, but she lives on as a vampire, or a zombie, and embarks on a cannibalistic crusade. Naturally, the episodic bloodshed coincides with the deterioration of Jennifer’s friendship with Needy, culminating in a resolution that is not as poignant as it probably should have been, but that is certainly more affecting than it could have been.

The critical elite may have agreed with us, at least on this point, as even those who recognized the movie’s flaws praised it for its “unexpected emotional resonance”, in the words of Dana Stevens, who reviewed the film for Slate. Wehrstedt has a remarkably different understanding of the critical appraisal, alleging that the film was “mauled by critics around the globe”. We cannot deny that the film inspired mixed reviews, the negativity of which might have been more conspicuous than the praise; but we cannot accept Wehrstedt’s attribution of this disapproval to sexist disappointment, either. She instructs us to believe that the critical consensus was unfairly influenced by resistance to the notion of a female director and a female writer working together to make a film about young women.

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