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Christopher Lasch: The Revolt of the Elites

RevoltOfTheElites

Having finally read this well-known and so-often-recommended book, I'm sorry to say that I was a little disappointed in it. It's not that there is anything wrong with its actual contents--it's a good book, and I recommend it--but that the contents aren't quite what I was expecting. I assumed that the topic named in the title would be the entire subject of the book. But "The Revolt of the Elites" is really the title essay in a collection whose subjects range somewhat afield from that of the one. They are certainly related, describing other components of the general "betrayal of democracy" which is the book's subtitle, but they don't deal specifically with the revolt.

I had a specific reason for wanting a book focused on the title's topic. I have never encountered, either personally or in print, a really committed and zealous progressive who had any understanding of why people vote for Trump. I can't even name one who seemed even to make a serious effort to do so, though surely there are some out there. Usually if the question is raised at all it's rhetorical and framed so that actual understanding is precluded: how can anyone be so stupid/crazy/evil as to vote for this monster? 

I had hoped I might be able to suggest this book to any progressive, if I came across one, who would be open to considering the root causes--to use a term favored by progressives in other contexts--of the Trump phenomenon. As Lasch is not a conservative or a Republican and not particularly oriented toward politics, and as this book is now over twenty-five years old, I hoped he might get a hearing where a conservative would not.

Well, it really isn't suited to that particular purpose. But the following passage sums up very well a sort of elemental aspect of the Trump phenomenon: the perfectly accurate sense on the part of middle-class Americans that the most culturally dominant segments of society despise them.

Upper-middle-class liberals, with their inability to grasp the importance of class differences in shaping attitudes toward life, fail to reckon with the class dimension of their obsession with health and moral uplift. They find it hard to understand why their hygienic conception of life fails to command universal enthusiasm. They have mounted a crusade to sanitize American society: to create a "smoke-free environment," to censor everything from pornography to "hate speech," and at the same time, incongruously, to extend the range of personal choice in matters where most people feel the need of solid moral guidelines. When confronted with resistance to these initiatives, they betray the venomous hatred that lies not far beneath the smiling face of upper-middle-class benevolence. Opposition makes humanitarians forget the liberal virtues they claim to uphold. They become petulant, self-righteous, intolerant. In the heat of political controversy, they find it impossible to conceal their contempt for those who stubbornly refuse to see the light--those who "just don't get it," in the self-satisfied jargon of political rectitude.

Simultaneously arrogant and insecure, the new elites, the professional class in in particular, regard the masses with mingled scorn and apprehension. In the United States, "Middle America"--a term that has both geographical and social implications--has come to symbolize everything that stands in the way of progress: "family values," mindless patriotism, religious fundamentalism, racism, homophobia, retrograde views of women. Middle Americans, as they appear to the makers of educated opinion, are hopelessly shabby, unfashionable, and provincial, ill informed about changes in taste or intellectual trends, addicted to trashy novels of romance and adventure [times have changed!--mh], and stupefied by prolonged exposure to television. They are at once absurd and vaguely menacing--not because they wish to overthrow the old order but precisely because their defense of it appears so deeply irrational that it expresses, at the higher reaches of its intensity, in fanatical religiosity, in a repressive sexuality that occasionally erupts into violence against women and gays, and in a patriotism that supports imperialist wars and a national ethic of aggressive masculinity.

"Absurd and vaguely menacing"--exactly. The conceptual framework of much left-liberalism has for some time seen the mass of Americans as savages who need to be continually restrained. And mainstream liberalism has taken a strikingly and unembarrassed authoritarian turn. (Everyone sensed that about Hillary Clinton; it was part of what made her an unattractive candidate.)

Most of this belongs in the "oft was thought but n'er so well expressed" category. But there is one striking difference between what Lasch saw in the early '90s and our current situation. A couple of pages later he remarks that the liberals described here "lack a common political outlook." But that's no longer the case. The upper-middle class and many (or most?) of the very rich are now predominantly on the political left, and much further in that direction than they were in Lasch's time, at least in the ways that do not threaten their own wealth, prestige, and power. And the embrace of Trump by really tacky people only reinforces their sense of the rightness of their own politics, which are at one with their good taste and careful management of their own lives (not that any class of people is ever consistently successful in that effort). 

And the remarks about "the hygienic conception of life," the "crusade to sanitize American society": my initial reaction to those was that they were a bit outmoded, not as applicable today as then. But they are. What has happened is that the sanitizing crusade has grown to encompass the political and cultural realms, with puritans attempting to purge not only contemporary society but all of American history, and further back as necessary, of everything they see as a stain, the way food purists want to be certain that absolutely no trace of "chemicals" is present in what they eat and drink.

Affluent women, especially younger ones, seem to be especially susceptible to obsession along these lines. There's a perceptive and intermittently amusing treatment of one manifestation of this in an article at The Tablet: "Master Cleanse: Why social justice feels like self-help to privileged women". And then there are those enterprising "women of color" who charge groups of white women $5000 to challenge them to admit their racism over dinner. You'll notice, if you click on that link, that the URL of the MSN story to which it takes you places it in "health/wellness."

Lasch would have understood. 

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Reading that article in The Tablet made me think of the popularity of the encounter group movement in the 1960s-70s. Found a 1971 article in Congressional Quarterly on it -- some bits:

The genesis of the encounter group movement can be traced to a workshop for community leaders held on the campus of the Central Connecticut State College (then State Teachers College) at New Britain in June 1946 under the auspices of the Connecticut Interracial Commission. The object of the workshop was to train local leaders in ways of winning wholehearted support in their communities for the state's Fair Employment Practices Act. The time was ripe for such an undertaking. World War II had heightened professional and popular interest in the sources of racial and religious prejudice, and efforts were being made to knock down barriers to good relations between people.

...

Though it has many aspects of a fad, and may even already have passed its peak of popularity, the encounter group movement appears to be settling in for a long stay on the American scene. Like listening to rock ‘n roll or watching television, participating in an encounter group is becoming one of the many things Americans can do with their time, money and energy. It may be viewed as a newly available route to self-knowledge or self-improvement, more enticing to many than taking courses, attending lectures, reading uplift books, consulting counselors or participating in all-night rap (talk) sessions with good friends. In some ways, the encounter group experience embraces all of these, plus an extra ingredient of untrammeled self-expression.

Even if the attractions of signing up for an encounter group weekend or series should pall as a popular activity, the movement is likely to have a lasting effect on standard practices in education, personnel management, the conduct of voluntary organizations, counseling, and many other activities that require interpersonal relationships

...

At one end of the spectrum the encounter group is hardly more than a new form of in-service training or adult education; at the other end it is a half-mystical experience of psychic rebirth. In fact, the encounter group is only one phase of a larger development known as the human potential movement, which embraces a variety of efforts to tap more of the individual's innate capacity to work, to produce, to love, to express creativity, to get along with others.

https://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/document.php?id=cqresrre1971030300

I have an ultra lefty relative who thinks if Trump is elected we will have tyranny. I wonder what he thinks tyranny is and why he doesn't think the leftists he looks in as saviors are every bit as tyrannical as he thinks Trump will be--just on a different set of issues.

Why is forcing one definition of marriage on people tyranny and not the other?

Marianne:

"Even if the attractions of signing up for an encounter group weekend or series should pall as a popular activity, the movement is likely to have a lasting effect on standard practices in education, personnel management, the conduct of voluntary organizations, counseling, and many other activities that require interpersonal relationships."

They sure got that right. It's been a long time since I even heard the term "encounter group," but the general idea seems to have kind of oozed out into other things as described. I'm pretty sure it's responsible for substituting "shared" for "said." :-) I never attended one, but a couple of people I know did, and they described it as extremely manipulative.

I guess we have all been in meetings related to work or some organization we're involved with where people are rather clumsily manipulated into saying they agree with whatever the management has decided. According to people who write to Rod Dreher, the social justice and diversity etc training in corporations now are very much in that mold.

Robert: "...why he doesn't think the leftists he looks in as saviors are every bit as tyrannical as he thinks Trump will be--just on a different set of issues."

I think actually more so, which is one of the reasons why I may end up voting for Trump, much as I don't want to. Trump basically just wants to be the boss, in a very crude sort of way. So maybe he would be a tyrant if he could. But for one thing he's too flaky, and for another there are huge entrenched forces, legal and cultural, against him. But left-wing tyranny has the wind at its back now.

As many people have noted, what we've been calling liberalism for decades has shifted dramatically to the left. And the radical left has always been tyrannical when it got the chance.

Revolt... was the first book I read after the 2016 election, and purposely so, as I was fairly convinced that the DT phenomenon was in many ways a backlash against elite abandonment/neglect of rural and rust-belt concerns. In my view the book does not so much answer the question of why people would vote for Trump, but rather how we ended up with someone like DT as a choice in the first place. I was even more convinced of this when I reread it a month ago in the wake of all the COVID and BLM nonsense.

I think that Lasch was prescient in a lot of ways, but when he missed it, it was mainly because he either didn't see things that no one could have foreseen (911 or the 2008 crash, for instance) or that he was in some ways perhaps a bit too "generous" about the course that the revolt of the elites would take. I don't think he saw things getting this bad this quickly, in other words.

I certainly didn't. And I don't think those "elites" really learned anything. They just concluded that middle America was even worse than they thought.

I don't like using terms like "elites" and " middle America" but they're hard to avoid.

Yep -- they're fraught terms but I can't think of any good alternatives offhand.

About the elites not learning anything, Douthat had a good piece a week or two ago about how pre-Trump GOP strategists have seemingly learned nothing over the past four years. They apologize for giving us DT, but cannot grasp how many of their own strategies brought us there. It's like they're apologizing for the wrong things.

The anti-Trump Republicans are, as an acquaintance of mine used to say, "as useless as tits on a boar." They're right that Trump is awful, but they have nothing to offer except...GW Bushism? Anything?

They strike me as a variation of the old "fiscally conservative but socially liberal" thing -- Reaganism without Reagan's cultural concerns (such as they were). And yes, useless.

"fiscally conservative but socially liberal"--yeah, pretty much. And the neocons who didn't seem to learn anything from the Iraq and related Middle Eastern wars. As evidenced by the fact that so many of them have been ready to start yelling "xenophobia! racism! homophobia!".

They can make a good argument that a Romney-type Republican would be more competent than Trump (wouldn't almost anybody?). But that's a preside-over-the-decline sort of leadership. I sympathize with those who voted for Trump because they thought he would/could actually change course. The tragedy of the situation, seen from a hundred years from now, may be that Trump, in his instinctive way, saw the need, but was utterly the wrong person to persuade and lead the country in a different direction.

I agree. I picture a scenario in which I sit down with my three never-Trump Catholic friends and say, "Ok, guys. Convince me why I shouldn't vote for Trump in light of the ever-increasing intolerance of American liberalism and its finding itself a happy home in the Democratic party."

I do not think that Biden is "worse" than HRC but I do think the Dems have gotten worse in the last four years. The GOP has too, of course, but at least they don't want to "cancel" me and what I believe.

Agreed. I feel even more strongly that the Democrats are much more of a threat to the constitution. This is a long-running trend but like everything else it's gotten worse. And more open. Granting if only for the sake of the argument that Trump is also a threat to the constitution, he's incoherent and ineffective, whereas the Democrats know what they're doing and as I think I said somewhere above have the wind very much at their backs. They're not going to be scrutinized and called to account by the media and other cultural forces.

If your three friends are true never-Trumpers, by which I mean really intense and zealous on the subject, I don't think I'd even try that. :-) They seem to have remained so freaked out by Trump's manifest unsuitability and general jerk-ness that they can't see that he is not the "existential threat" he was made out to be. Or see him in perspective with the alternative. It's too bad that those are the alternatives, but they are.

I have kind of a morally ever-man-for-himself view of the situation. That is, I would not condemn any sincere practicing Christian for voting either way.

The tragedy of the situation, seen from a hundred years from now, may be that Trump, in his instinctive way, saw the need, but was utterly the wrong person to persuade and lead the country in a different direction.

About 35 years ago, I was a clerk for a weight-loss organization, and we would check people in and weigh them, but then have a lot of time to kill while they were in class. The other clerk and I would talk about some problems we saw in the company, and I told her some ideas I had about how we could make things run more smoothly. Several months down the road, she was hired as manager of the clerks, and as things began to change, I realized that she had gone to the boss and pitched my ideas to the management as her own. Well, I didn't care because I had no interest in a full-time job. I thought it was kind of funny. But the thing was, she tried to implement the ideas in such an authoritarian and confrontational manner, that all the clerks rebelled. It was pretty sad, but I can see that in a way, Trump's situation is similar.

I don't think Biden is "worse" than HRC, but I think Harris is much the same without the baggage, and that is pretty scary to me.

Also, could you point me in the direction of somebody who wants to give me $5K and throw in a free dinner to admit I'm racist. Because I think that everybody has some seed of racism deep within them although most people would like to be rid of it--like Paul's thorn in his side.

I've been reading some things I would not ordinarily read because, for instance, I want to really understand what the people behind BLM are saying. I tried to read White Fragility twice, not knowing what it was, or that it was written by a white woman, but I couldn't do it. I don't know who she is talking about, but it's not I.

AMDG

It may seem a bit thick (if not racist!) to say this, but BLM the organization is pretty much standard-issue leftism.

"We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.

We foster a queer‐affirming network. When we gather, we do so with the intention of freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking, or rather, the belief that all in the world are heterosexual (unless s/he or they disclose otherwise)."

But the sentiment, "black lives matter", lower-case: You would have to look pretty hard to find people who would disagree with the statement. Yet with all the many, many examples of the ways black people have continued to be worse off than most other groups in this country, it's understandable that they would respond to the slogan. The organization was certainly smart to choose that as their name, in the time-honored tradition of politicians naming things in ways that make opposition sound evil. What do you mean, your against the Patriot Act? Guess you're not a patriot.

Re Kamala Harris, she is pretty clearly very bad news from several points of view. Anti-Christian, indifferent to the constitution--and very experienced and competent in governmental positions. A lot of people are saying that Biden is in such decline that she'll be the real president. I don't know how much there is to that.

David French wrote a good piece on racism a couple of months ago that brought home the point that we truly often just don't see it. He gives some examples of what happened with his adopted black daughter:

I always deplored racism—those values were instilled in me from birth—but I was also someone who recoiled at words like “systemic racism.” I looked at the strides we’d made since slavery and Jim Crow and said, “Look how far we’ve come.” I was less apt to say, “and look how much farther we have to go.”

Then, where I sit changed, dramatically. I just didn’t know it at the time. I went from being the father of two white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed kids to the father of three kids—one of them a beautiful little girl from Ethiopia. When Naomi arrived, our experiences changed. Strange incidents started to happen.

There was the white woman who demanded that Naomi—the only black girl in our neighborhood pool—point out her parents, in spite of the fact that she was clearly wearing the colored bracelet showing she was permitted to swim.

There was the time a police officer approached her at a department store and questioned her about who she was with and what she was shopping for. That never happened to my oldest daughter.

There was the classmate who told Naomi that she couldn’t come to our house for a play date because, “My dad says it’s dangerous to go black people’s neighborhoods.”

I could go on, and—sure—some of the incidents could have a benign explanation, but as they multiplied, and it was clear that Naomi’s experience was clearly different from her siblings, it became increasingly implausible that all the explanations were benign.

The whole thing is worth a read: https://frenchpress.thedispatch.com/p/american-racism-weve-got-so-very

I don't have time to read the piece now, but have read French on that subject before. And I'm very much aware of the kind of thing he's talking about. The problem I have with discussing it as that the word "racism," even apart from its frequent use as a malicious slur, is hopelessly broad. It encompasses everything from KKK-level racism to mild prejudices and half-unconscious, sometimes entirely unconscious, "microaggressions." It just becomes almost useless. On the one hand everybody is in some sense or degree racist, if only at the sort of instinctive level of noticing a person's race and having one's perception influenced by other experiences, social conditions, etc. And there's really not much that can be done about that apart from the individual striving to treat everyone well. On the other "racist" is a binary condition, and any taint of it renders one a Bad Bad Person, probably irreformable and unredeemable, though not unpunishable. If we can't distinguish those degrees, it's impossible to discuss it in any useful way.

Having grown up in the segregated south, I am extremely impatient with those who use the milder instances of racial prejudice to claim that nothing has changed. Not that French does that, I hope, but BLM et al certainly do.

I definitely think there is such a thing as "systemic racism," btw, in the sense that our culture puts blacks at a certain disadvantage in many ways.

~~I definitely think there is such a thing as "systemic racism," btw, in the sense that our culture puts blacks at a certain disadvantage in many ways.~~

I agree, and I think that the error lies not in the observation itself but in the way that it is applied. That is, the idea that since the society is in this sense "racist", every white person in that society is racist as well, and therefore privileged. This leads to such ridiculous notions as that which argues that the destitute whites of Appalachia or the Ozarks are less worthy of sympathy than poor blacks. I've had at least three conversations with "woke" people in which it was implied that any defense of poor whites, especially those who may have voted for DT, amounts to an apology for racism. One of them said specifically that she had a hard time feeling sympathy toward any poor person who was white, no matter how bad off they had it, because of their "privilege." This isn't just hogwash, it's dangerous hogwash.

"I tried to read White Fragility twice, not knowing what it was, or that it was written by a white woman, but I couldn't do it. I don't know who she is talking about, but it's not I."

The very fact that you don't see yourself there is what indicts you. This is why the book's whole thesis is utter nonsense. If you read it and come to accept that you're a fragile white, well and good: the book has done its job. If you read it and don't come to that conclusion then it's your white fragility that's preventing you from seeing the truth about yourself, and you stand condemned as well. That millions of people have fallen for the book's argument without a hint of noticing its fairly obvious circularity boggles the mind.

Well, like a friend of mine just posted on Facebook this morning (and he is further left than I am), the woke far left is just as bad as the extremely racially insensitive and insulting far right. I have no time for the woke cancel culture, but I have just as little time for white supremacists and people marching with a confederate flag.

I also believe that everyone is somewhat inherently "racist" to a degree, pretty much as Mac explains above. Having said that, I think trump is much worse than your average person. I for one will be voting for the lifelong Catholic and person why displays a high degree of empathy this fall for President. :-)

I doubt that someone like Robin D'Angelo would be in the least fazed by having this circularity pointed out. People like her don't think that way. It's not an "argument" for them. It's simply a fact that if you are white you are racist, and you can either deal with it ("do the work"--a phrase I'm coming to hate) and abase yourself, in which case you have come over to the light side, or not, in which case you have chosen the dark side.

The quasi-religious aspect of it is...intriguing? grotesque?...choose your adjective. Striking, anyway. It's a kind of original sin which only affects white people.

There's also the irony that the whole thing increases everyone's discomfort with people of different races.

The missing piece of the "white privilege" bit is "all else being equal." That is, you can make a reasonable argument that if two people are equal in education, talent, wealth, etc., then the white person may at least in many ways in many situations be "privileged" (not, for instance, in admission to Harvard). But all things usually are not equal. To say that J.D. Vance started out more privileged than Barack Obama is just a denial of reality. And the people you mention who just say outright that poor white people deserve no sympathy...well, restraining myself, I'll just say I have no sympathy for them.

Cross-posted with Stu. I will add that the emphasis in "displays a high degree of empathy" should be on "displays." :-) I think "kindly Uncle Joe" is successful marketing. Though I don't think he's the jerk that Trump is.

"Because I think that everybody has some seed of racism deep within them although most people would like to be rid of it--like Paul's thorn in his side." Amen.

Right, I'm not talking so much about D'Angelo or the already woke, but more the average person who reads the book or at least hears its "argument" and falls into the trap.

And the "all else being equal" thing is true. That's the part that a lot of the SJW's just don't seem to grasp.

"I for one will be voting for the lifelong Catholic and person why displays a high degree of empathy this fall for President."

But you're not just voting for the man, alas, but also for the reprobate anti-Catholic sex-addled party that he represents.

I was about to say that not many people who aren't already woke are even reading the book or more than vaguely aware of it, if aware of it at all. But I don't know if that's true. A quick search for sales figures tells me that as of late July it had sold around 800,000 copies. A lot for a book, obviously, and we can assume it gets talked about way beyond that 800,000. Anyway the real influence is probably a few layers of indirection from the actual readers. There is doubtless some negative influence, too: how many people being browbeaten by HR and other diversity scolds are silently fuming?

Re voting for the man or the party: my great-aunt Ann, whose father was very active in Democratic politics in Pennsylvania in the early 20th c, used to say that he used to say that "vote for the man, not the party" was misguided, because you should be trying to advance your principles which at least in theory are represented by the party.

Btw this is a good piece by John McWhorter on White Fragility:

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/07/dehumanizing-condescension-white-fragility/614146/

The Democrats certainly have their problems, and I don't love them. I just think the Republicans are worse, and more so in the past 3.5 years. So I do pretty much vote party, I was just teasing all of you because Biden is Catholic, and if he wins will be only our 2nd Catholic president (both Democrats).

All of that said, I do like my Republican governor here in Wyoming and see myself voting for him whenever that comes up again. Republicanism might be a little different out here than in other parts of the USA. He is sober (not the kind related to alcohol), careful when speaking, respectful, and cares about his state. My kind of politician!

Have you heard that people are calling our not-young female Republican governor "Governor Mee-maw" because of (what is perceived as) her grandmotherly setting of rules about covid-19? Not fair, but funny. They're probably calling Michigan's Whitmire "Governor Mortitia".

I would like to see somewhere a comparison and contrast of the two candidates and the two platforms. What have they done? What do they promote? All of it. Not just the issues I'm concerned about. Then I could weigh one against the other.

By the way, the issue for me is not whether I could vote for the Democratic candidate: I can't. The issue is whether I can vote for the Republican candidate as the lesser of the two evils. If I decide they are equally as evil or even that the Democratic option is the lesser of the two evils (not likely!), I will not vote for the Republican candidate.

No one provides that kind of information that I know of.

Trump's platform is "I am the greatest!".

Mac, another friend of mine in Mobile has been referring to Kay Ivey as Governor Mee-Maw since long before COVID. It's not just her age, but that voice of hers also, extreme Southern accent mixed with perhaps years of smoking cigarettes? I think it is fair to say there is not another governor in the country that sounds remotely like her!

Ha. No, I didn't know that. I must say that with complete disregard of her qualifications and performance I really like having her as governor. :-)

Re: Lasch, the new number of FPR's print journal Local Culture is dedicated to Lasch and his work. Here's the intro by Jason Peters:

https://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2020/08/from-the-editor-local-culture-2-2-christopher-lasch/

That's great. I don't need another magazine subscription but that tempts me.

They only do two issues a year, spring and fall, but they're nice big full-sized journals.

Maybe I could handle that.

This just posted today on FPR. Writer John Murdock talks about how an anti-Trump essay of his was nixed from a book of similar essays because it was too hard on the Dems over abortion.

https://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2020/08/spiritual-dangers-in-the-trump-era/

That's very good. It's an instance of the way Christians on the left tend to (mis)use the "seamless garment" approach. I know the phrase comes from Catholics but the issue is ecumenical.

As someone or other parodied it: "If they were *really* pro-life they'd push for low-flow shower heads."

Just got the new Lasch-centered edition of FPR's journal Local Culture. I'm about halfway through it and it's outstanding. The essay by Eric Miller (Lasch's biographer and a friend of mine) comparing Lasch and Berry is especially good.

I subscribed when we discussed it a few weeks ago. I hope that was in time to get this issue.

If you don't get it let me know. I can ask the editor, Jason Peters, about it. If worst comes to worst I can send you my copy to read.

Thanks. Or maybe they'll offer single issues for sale.

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