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The Big Answer


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On the Making of Americans: Essays in Honor of David Riesman

a book by Herbert J. Gans and Nathan Glazer and Joseph Gusfield and Christopher Jencks

(our site's book review)

Herbert J. Gans, et al., are the editors of this book that contains essays in honor of David Riesman, author of the classic The Lonely Crowd.

They note that Riesman, like so many others, at first called for social engineering by government intervention—but he later renounced that stance. Additionally, Riesman has always had an antiwar attitude, especially when it comes to nukes.

No nukes is good nukes to Riesman
No nukes is good nukes to Riesman

Riesman’s ability for synthesis, like the Tofflers, Fritjof Capra, Buckminster Fuller and others, came out brilliantly in The Lonely Crowd. The authors stress Riesman’s “exquisite understanding of other cultures.” With Erich Fromm as his analyst, one could say that the influences on his life were both fortunate and unusual. Riesman is a great teacher, both in person and via the printed page.

More complex than Riesman’s teaching ability is these editors’ view that “Riesman’s ideal of autonomy in the age of other-direction is an attack, among other things, on the groupiness of Progressive social thought.” This obviously doesn’t imply that conservatives are more autonomous than liberals, but that social engineering solutions have been the bane of the 20th century and, realizing this, Riesman saw the Progressives’ attack on individualism as an error and he saw that the best mode of addressing social problems was through knowledge and education, and movements composed of autonomous individuals as opposed to collectivist, “mass,” social engineering solutions. In this he trailblazed for the Third Wave.

It is wise to to choose a life that empowers, nurtures, inspires and creates happiness, regardless of how badly ones peers may be mucking up their lives due to mindless conformity
It is wise to to choose a life that empowers, nurtures, inspires and creates happiness, regardless of how badly ones peers may be mucking up their lives due to mindless conformity

Riesman disdained the Progressive-germinated other-directed social character in all its collectivist infamy. He wasn’t against the idea of community at all, but rather against the idea of the loss of individuality in the name of mindless conformity in order to achieve the impossible dream Gail and Snell Putney have dubbed “indirect self-acceptance” in The Adjusted American. One either likes himself or he doesn’t. No amount of conformity can get a person liking himself. To champion others’ apparent liking of oneself instead of one’s self-liking, and to champion a locus of control focused upon the values of one’s peers instead of autonomous self-control was a degeneration of control standards, and would lead to a degradation of the quality of life wherever it occurred. The way most people use Facebook and Twitter exemplifies this "championing others’ apparent liking of oneself" nicely.

Facebook and Twitter
Facebook and Twitter

Riesman isn’t championing the value of individuality compared to the value of community, but rather disparaging the very idea of trading in individuality for the nodding acceptance of the collectivity. Like Fromm and the Tofflers, he’s leery of mass man and mass conformity. He opts for individuality in the context of community, not individuality free of community.

A key Founder of the United States of America (George Washington)
A key Founder of the United States of America (George Washington)

Who could look backward at the extraordinary gifts of the Founders of the United States of America, who bestowed upon us an incredible democratic republic, and somehow miss the fact that this entire miracle was and is based upon individual freedom in the context of community solidarity? Not Riesman. He’s a pro-family, pro-community man bewailing the collapse of family and community. And he considers the other-directed mass conformity connections between people obsessed with consumption as a poor substitute for community. Thinking, responsible, autonomous individuals supporting politics, community and family were and are the magic formula—the balance to be struck—in Riesman-think.

Riesman bewails the other-directed mass conformity connections between people
Riesman bewails the other-directed mass conformity connections between people

To Riesman, Toqueville was right: the disease is conformity. This does not mean either man champions negative nonconformity as in the picture below. It means once you get your act together and are autonomous, the reason you do or do not do something comes from self-direction, not inner-direction or outer-direction. E.g., autonomous people could become true statesmen (like our Founding Fathers and very UNlike our leaders today who are mostly flunkies for the Corporatocracy) or stateswomen that honestly represent the interests on the people, as opposed to recent politicians who are other-directed opportunists who have questionable values, mushy integrity, promise what they know they cannot deliver, and who prevaricate every other sentence. You know who we mean.

Recent politicians who are other-directed opportunists who have questionable values, mushy integrity, promise what they know they cannot deliver, and who prevaricate every other sentence
Recent politicians who are other-directed opportunists who have questionable values, mushy integrity, promise what they know they cannot deliver, and who prevaricate every other sentence


Negative nonconformity
Negative nonconformity

In truth, cooperation in community can empower and increase the potential for individuality. The naïve notion that there’s an either-or relationship between the two needs to be dispelled. Our Founding Fathers created a document that set up a republic that manifested the best possible balance of rights versus responsibilities, individual versus society, and I versus we. They meant for all this to give us the maximum freedoms possible without stepping on the toes of others. But the individual-society continuum was never looked at as an antagonist relationship. Each empowers the other. See Why Do We Need Communities? and The Responsive Communitarian Platform.

And it is not the conflict between the two but rather the dialectical synthesis of the two—transcending the continuum by the creation of a win-win political entity surpassing any yet known—that made it all work and created the longest living political system on Earth. Those that misunderstand Riesman about his individual-society continuum perspective seem to not actually understand the true nature of the democracy set up by our Founders. It makes one wonder what our high school teachers are up to that are supposed to be teaching this critical stuff that all citizens ought to know! What are they doing instead?

High school teacher
High school teacher

The classic works of Riesman have left an indelible mark on this planet—especially The Lonely Crowd. Fromm seems to have empowered Riesman in the direction of autonomous awareness, because few have ever dealt as competently with the subject of autonomous social character, and he didn’t think up the autonomy concept himself. Which of these men influenced the other the most will be a matter never properly settled, but one thing is sure about this meeting of titans: It was a good one.