The De-Moralization Of Society: from Victorian Virtues to Modern Values
a book by Gertrude Himmelfarb
(our site's book review)
Himmelfarb quotes Bill Clinton, in this 1995 book, as having said with regards to the drug and violence problem: The government alone could not do the job. The problem is caused by family breakdown, community breakdown, lack of good jobs, etc., so unless we “reach deep inside to the values, the spirit, the soul and the truth of human nature, none of the other things we seek to do will ever take us where we need to go.” Where, how, and why people can suddenly be expected to reach this deeply was left unsaid.
She quotes Martin Luther King in a virtual manner by putting together his ideas and attitudes and having them respond to the current 1995 social problems with dismay.
She points out that today’s conservatives look to civil society to do what the state cannot do—or, more often, to undo the evil that the state has unintentionally done. She echoes the sentiments of most other writers, especially those on the right, when she calls for a balance between rights and responsibilities. She calls for a reformation to restore moral and civic virtue.
She makes a great point that society has wrongly transferred responsibility from the individual to the society, and from the criminal to the social conditions that “victimized” him. She hits the nail on the head in her trouncing of “political correctness.”
But then a strange combination of cynicism and misinformation takes over and she hits us with a diatribe against what she calls the New Victorian values, combined with a bit of nostalgia for old Victorian values and the good old days. This could even have been half-way effective except that it is so ill-informed.
Victorian values and the feminist movement clashed from the very start
She trips all over concepts like self-esteem, self, self-help, self-fulfillment, dependency and codependency. It’s best to skip these sections of her tome, or you may end up discarding the book in frustration. However, some parts of the book are quite cogent and accurate.
Himmelfarb makes some of the same errors as Allan Bloom, Robert Bellah, Christopher Lasch, and even Don E. Eberly in America’s Promise—and the latter should have known better. Conservative writers showed enormous confusion in the last part of the 20th century when it comes to self, self-actualization, dependence, self-help, etc. Instead of any of them taking the time to study the actual truths about what that aspect of American life is really about, a handful of them early on took a few superficial, misguided cheap shots at such things (probably guided by right-wing religious fundamentalist fanatics some of whom are actually foolish enough to believe—and relentlessly propagandize—that humanists are satanists!), without an inkling of insight, and many other conservatives joined that bandwagon, taking what their predecessors had said as gospel.
Apparently these people read mostly each other’s books (this has been validated elsewhere) and turned up their noses at opportunities to broaden their knowledge from some of the psychological, sociological, child development and self-help classics by such sages as Gail and Snell Putney, Philip Slater, Richard Louv, Abe Maslow, Thomas Gordon, Louise Hart, Shad Helmstetter, David Riesman and Erich Fromm. But their mutual admiration society has painted them into a corner they won’t easily wriggle out of. Wrong is wrong. Many conservative cliches about the work ethic, responsibility, morals, values, and the importance of family are fine additions to our cultural wisdom. But the foolish anti-self cliches reverberating around conservative circles of late have more than just worn thin. They have worn out. If the swinging banjo on the bridge in the movie Deliverance is a warning signal of dangers to come that originate in backwoods inbreeding, then the Culture War itself is the banjo the conservatives need to discern as a harbinger of the dangers of mental inbreeding.
The Culture War is the swinging banjo the conservatives need to discern as a harbinger of the dangers of mental inbreeding
Okay, once more, here it is. (Sigh.) “Self” is not “selfish.” People who are into self-help are not narcissistic. Self-esteem is not a foolish liberal preoccupation nor a hollow concept. And the reason people are interested in these things is not about solipsism, egotism, selfishness, elitism or any other such nonsense. No matter how much an inbred mutual admiration society keeps telling each other these things, they’ll never be true, they’ll never be helpful, and they’ll always be part of our society’s problems, never its solutions.
It may be true that it’s possible to find instances of weak pedagogy about such important subjects as self-esteem, being naïvely and incorrectly taught in some schools (“okay, start liking yourself tomorrow”), and it’s true that there are some people who have overindulged in self-help and forgotten to connect with their fellow man, and it’s true that some self-help therapies overdo the victim context, but to cite a few minor weaknesses such as these and then scorn everything to do with self, self-help and self-actualization in one fell swoop is to throw out the baby with the bath water and then throw out the baby’s mother.
To scorn everything to do with self, self-help and self-actualization in one fell swoop due to a few minor weaknesses is to throw out the baby with the bath water
Her criticism of the movement against co-dependency is a blatant example of misunderstanding piled upon misunderstanding. John Bradshaw offers people inspiring help at overcoming the negative effects of normally deficient childhoods and getting through past-created barriers to a fulfilling life. Himmelfarb is, in essence, saying that however much you’ve been messed up, you shouldn’t try to push aside the barriers that are making your life into a pale shadow of your potential; and you shouldn’t be allowed to feel the real feelings you have inside that are stored there unconsciously and yet often dictating a life of fear, misery, failure, frustrating passive aggressiveness, and self-defeatism; and you shouldn’t exit or even transform unhealthy family (parental or spousal) co-dependencies that are creating misery and chaos in your life; and you shouldn’t be concerned at enmeshed, dependent relationships that still exist in you once you reach adulthood. See Parenting From the Inside Out.
Let's avoid having our past pain, hang-ups, and patterns run us like we're programmed robots
She even says you shouldn’t follow Wayne Dyer’s or Shad Helmstetter’s or Abe Maslow’s advice (or any of the other experts listed above) and do what it takes to transform from being at effect of your life to being at cause. Instead, she would have us look upon all dependencies and co-dependencies as what holds families and communities together, regardless of how unhealthy. And she would have us believe that all adult growth towards autonomy, self-actualization and self-control (which good psychologists simply consider healthy maturation) as rebellious betrayals to family and clan. She’d have us believe that achieving independence and self-control (every single expert in the social and psychological sciences knows that this is a positive and vitally needed step for every human being) is our way of shunning our family, relatives, community and world.
But, of course, the truth is exactly the opposite. By becoming a self-actualized, independent individual who can stand on his or her feet and be the cause in his or her life rather than the effect, a person is thereby ready to love, contribute to society, take on the massive responsibility of reproduction and parenting with effectiveness and resourcefulness, and become part of society’s solution. (Shunning our family, relatives, community and world is the opposite of the result one gets with self-actualization.) By developing autonomy and a humanistic conscience (Fromm)/intrinsic conscience (Riesman), a person will be most likely to connect with the oneness of mankind in a truly compassionate context and strive to make life work on this planet.
The dependent, authoritarian-raised heroes in Himmelfarb’s fantasy/illusion accept social responsibility out of guilt- and fear-based “duty,” don’t so much love those around them as need them symbiotically because of all the unfilled needs of their upbringings which they have yet to come to terms with, and are incredibly unready for the task of parenting. Such people are easy marks for tyrants and demagogues, and either have or can easily develop the authoritarian conscience (Fromm) that will allow them to act in evil, mass-man ways which they wouldn’t be ready to do on their own without the authoritarian history. Such people are not the backbone of society as Himmelfarb would have us believe, but the deterministic sheep in Dostoevski’s The Grand Inquisitor—the essence of what mass means in the term mass-man.
No one has explained better than the Tofflers why the transformation of a Second Wave, authoritarian, mass-man, conformity-obsessed society to a Third Wave, diversified, individualistic society (with more power deriving from authoritative knowledge and less from authoritarian force) is a good thing for mankind. No one has outlined the psychological implications better than Fromm and Riesman. And yet most conservative authors have totally missed these truths. In fact, no one has demonstrated more talent for mucking up the understanding and communication of all this than the current crop of head-in-the-sand conservative writers, who feed on each other, and every time another person joins their ranks they become that much more sure of themselves.
The current crop of head-in-the-sand conservative writers feed on each other, and every time their ranks swell they become that much more sure of themselves
What’s needed now is for one of them—hopefully of the stature of Eberly—to break ranks with his peers and, while continuing to propagate the ¾ of his conservative message that is on the mark, begin integrating this information with the type of knowledge touched upon above. If our culture is anything, it’s a living testament to the willingness of millions of conservatives for millions of babies to be thrown out with millions of tubs of bath water. The polarization engendered by the conservative blind spots are one main contributing factor to this tragedy. Liberals seeking all rights and no responsibilities and failing to nurture good character in offspring deserve their share of the blame as well. But any blame being laid at the feet of the promoters of autonomy, maturity, awareness, humanism, self-actualization or self-esteem is being profoundly misplaced.
The bottom line here is that way too many conservatives are way too willing to become ultra-conformists and join a me-too bandwagon of people too lazy to think for themselves—a very mass-man phenomenon—and feel power (cheered on by their authoritarian consciences) in numbers, the old mechanistic-reductionistic, Second Wave modus operandi; while way too few conservatives are willing to break the conformity and the entrenched and enmeshed in-group pseudosecurity and open their minds and hearts to the humanitarian consciences at least a few of them must have evolved, and help our culture and world find the benevolent unity and harmony it so needs.
We don’t need more insults heaped upon “the evil, immoral, permissively-spoiled ne’er-do-wells that sit around in a narcissistic daze thinking self-esteem thoughts.” This is not just counterproductive and inaccurate—it’s also a politically motivated lie. It’s inflammatory, erroneous dogma for the purpose of getting Republican votes. The Himmelfarbs and Eberlys, et al., are not writing these things for this political reason. But the politicos are using them this way.
Unfortunately, the last two decades of the 20th century and the 21st century so far are a case study in how political systems and knowledge dissemination systems have gotten incestuously intertwined to form Information Age red-light districts as part of the Culture War, and, as we all know, the first casualty of war is truth. Worse yet, our citizens no longer believe in science, research, and scholarly inquiry. So they are rushing off to sign up with extremist churches with anti-science views like Creationism that deny evolution.
Political systems and knowledge dissemination systems have gotten incestuously intertwined to form Information Age red-light districts as part of the Culture War
What incredible mental barrier precludes conservative minds from realizing that if schools are full of people needing more nurturing so that they can learn even the simplest things, since they’ve been very inadequately nurtured so far and have developed very little self-esteem, then we as a society must rise to such a challenge with something less glaringly impotent than inaccurate, liberal-trashing rhetoric? Schools that try to fill nurturing and self-esteem needs would rather be teaching subjects, but if the learning isn’t happening, then we must do something about our dysfunctional society beyond clever (they wish) rhetoric.
Conservatives are correct that social engineering is a lousy long-term answer to such a problem, but at least the advocates of raising self-esteem are making an important contribution in pointing to some reasonable amelioratives. And why is it hard for a conservative mind to see that authoritarian parenting is at least as much to blame for this unnurtured, unready, unteachable condition of our young as is anything liberal or permissive? And why are conservatives unable to show us evidence that authoritarians produce people of good character, high competence, and prosocial attitudes? In actual fact, people who parent authoritatively produce such offspring, but people who parent either permissively or with authoritarianism are unlikely to produce such offspring, and when they do, it’s in spite of their parenting, not because of it, and often due to the benevolent effects of a nonparental adult mentor. This is real. This is science. This is truth. This is proven.
Did the conservative movement drop science as a truth finding method and adopt astrology while no one was looking!?
Did the conservative movement drop science as a truth finding method and adopt astrology or palm reading while no one was looking!? (Of course, the only comprehensive method for addressing our social dysfunction is the MC movement. And please be aware that this movement needs the best of conservative wisdom as much as it needs the best of liberal wisdom. But, analogously to the comparison of authoritativeness to either permissiveness or authoritarianism, the MC movement does not need the worst parts of either conservative or liberal thinking! See Why Register for an MC?.)
Registering for MC search and match
We don’t appreciate the worst aspects of what Himmelfarb calls the New Victorians anymore than she does. But to put the old Victorians on a totally-undeserved pedestal and thrash modern morality mercilessly can hardly help us in our quest to get back to decency and responsibility. And to contaminate the discussion with erroneous, polarizing, inflammatory right-wing cliches (the human race’s wisest people have known these to be wrong for over two decades) that divide but do not conquer is to add insult to injury. Notice the sheer irresponsibility of this supposed attempt to aid our problems. And yet her main complaint is the irresponsibility of the “modern” people in modern societies. As St. Luke would say: “Physician, heal thyself.”