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: https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20210406-jennifers-body-the-real-meaning-of-a-sexy-teen-flick

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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The Misguided Celebrations in the Assange Extradition Ruling

Assange thumb

The political underground is hosting a bacchanalian celebration without cause. While it is not quite the indulgence it promised itself in anticipation of the presidential election—an indulgence that it was cruelly denied when the Democrats declared a cynical victory—it may prove to be a cathartic consolation, but only if it eventually achieves a retroactive justification. Today, the subterraneous rabble are cheerfully raising a toast or a joint because a British judge reluctantly declined to send Julian Assange to the United States. This frumpy magistrate clumsily cloaked her verdict, one that explicitly endorsed the American prosecutors’ technocratic claim, in a brutal bellicosity for which she had become notorious—a bellicosity which, it now appears to me, probably betrayed her own disappointed inability to grant the Americans’ request. Accordingly, history will not list her among the bureaucrats who signed Assange’s death warrant, and in the absence of this one bloodstained signature, the unlettered critics of the American Empire have read a proclamation of emancipation. It is for this mistaken interpretation that they are drinking and dancing to their hearts’ content, all too unconcerned about the clerks in the appellate courts, who will gladly authorize the transaction, if they can.

Indeed, the most recent ruling accepts the Empire’s authority in structure and substance, but denies the request for extradition on the basis of a subjective assessment of Assange’s mental health. This evaluation can be questioned, challenged, revisited, revised, and eventually overruled, just like any other medical diagnosis. Having satisfied its claim to unlimited legal power and discretion, all the Empire has to do now is present its own psychologist to contradict the current conclusion. Such is routine and unremarkable for a government of infinite resources and clout, and even the effort is a victory in its own right, for it further complicates and muddles a case that was already distorted to the point of incoherence. The international manhunt for Julian Assange has been the subject of so much propaganda and disinformation that no one, not even Assange’s most assiduous defenders, can honestly claim to understand it completely. By transmuting the story from one of journalism to one of national security to one of international agreements and treaties, the Empire appears to have successfully eluded the general public. What degree of obfuscation will be possible once the complexities of medicine are introduced to the narrative?

Ours is a longitudinal view, one that could prove to be incompatible with the political underground. Accustomed as the underground is to looking downward, it has taken this preternatural opportunity to look up, to cheer Assange’s momentary victory as if it were decisive. Nothing is definite, least of all while Assange remains shackled in a prison in accord with the Empire’s instructions, yet the underground rejoices, as if to say: “Our work here is done.” Unfortunately, we can’t attribute their myopia to the intoxication of high spirits, for the underground is habitually short-sighted. When the Democratic Party executed the Super Tuesday heist to thwart Bernie Sanders’s supporters, the underground responded by predicting certain doom for the Biden campaign. They spoke with such rigid conviction of Biden’s inevitable defeat, almost as if they needed to convince themselves, first and foremost. They couldn’t bring themselves to look past the present horror, to fathom a time in which the masses would reconcile themselves to that horror and, finally, empower it.

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