This is a complicated, disturbing treatise on the moral balkanization of contemporary society by a leading light of the intellectual right that, in spite of its urgent cadence, sings predictably in the dour choir of the culture wars. Himmelfarb (The De-Moralization of Society, etc.) draws on varied historical sources in order to see through the public spyglass darkly: she explores close correlations between this century's countercultural movements and various marked declines in the virtue of the polity, as exhibited in such alarming symptoms as the welfare state, with its insidious attack on individual motivation and choice, and the relation between widespread cohabitation and "alternative" parenting and a concomitant degradation of marriage. She extends this model, in succinctly constructed chapters, into many of our contentious cultural arenas: for example, discussing contemporary divides between a bland ideal of "civil religion" and competing factions of evangelism and secularism, viewing "fundamentalism," because it comes in various forms, as a pluralist creed. She depicts this sort of cultural schism--"dissidents" possessing religiously influenced moral lives and accustomed to traditional family models vs., for example, the triumphant social entropy of Clintonite governance and Hollywood pop-culture--as our current primary conflict, negating issues of class, wealth, labor or identity politics. Her arguments are forceful and sophisticated, but dovetail cleanly with contemporary rightist rhetoric: refusing to acknowledge, for instance, that participants in unorthodox lifestyles may subscribe to authentic frameworks of personal morality or that even flawed governmental-assistance initiatives may serve noble and necessary ends. This substantive, well-articulated volume is destined to provide credence to the dark fears of true believers. (Nov.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Continuing her study of the collapse of morals in society, Himmelfarb (The De-moralization of Society) links part of the problem to a more active and intrusive government and otherwise cites changes in the 1960s that have led to a more diverse and inclusive society. To repair the social fabric, she proposes a redeveloped "civil society" composed of families, communities, the church, and civil and cultural organizations, although she notes that these components of society have problems as well. Many will find Himmelfarb's ideas interesting and important, while others will find them uncomfortable and stifling. Nonetheless, this well-written book should be in libraries with collections on cultural and American studies to insure a diversity of viewpoints.--Danna C. Bell-Russel, Library of Congress Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Now off-duty after teaching nearly a quarter century (history, City U. of New York) Himmelfarb describes a divide through the US that cuts across the usual divisions of class, race, ethnicity, politics, and sex. One side, she says, follows the traditional idea of republican virtue, and the other emerged from the counter-culture of the 1960s and has become the dominant culture of today. She has hope however, and recommends democratic remedies. She only indexes names. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
In the rhetoric of conservative politics, the "1960s" has become a kind of shorthand for a cluster of attitudes and beliefs that can be used to explain almost any social ill...Cultural and political ideas are not, of course, irrelevant to an explanation of social change. But if we are to rely on such explanations, we cannot stop with the radicalism of the 60s. At least equally responsible for the changes in American life of recent decades are the consumerist ideas that have been taking root in Western industrial life since the late nineteenth century; Fruedian ideas about repression and identity; modernist convictions about the autonomy of the individual; contemporary ideas about the moral weight of market values; and many others.
Ideas, however, are not alone adequate explanations of large historical processes. They are themselves products of social and cultural conditions. And they affect society within boundaries created by those conditions. Whether or not one likes the cultural transformations that have gripped American life in the past forty years, it is impossible to understand them without a much larger interpretative framework then Gertrude Himmelfarb provides in the intelligent, provocative but, in the end, historically short-sighted book.
The (London) Times Literary Supplement
Of all those who write about the moral condition of America, Gertrude Himmelfarb is the best—partly because she is a historian, able to dip into deep reserves of knowledge to bring up parallels and precedents; partly because she has a strong taste for hard evidence and makes impressive use of statistics; partly because she is cool-headed and refuses to become hysterical about the awfulness of things; and finally because she writes well and succintly.
This is what happens when a scholar becomes a culture warrior. Himmelfarb (The De-Moralization of Society, 1995, etc.) submits that mainstream American culture has been morally corrupted by libertine elites but that a repository of virtue still exists in a dissident culture rooted generally in religion and political conservatism. Only readers awakening from a 20-year coma will find this basic theme unfamiliar, but the historical and social acuity of Himmelfarb's analysis is nevertheless impressive. Her problem is that a sharp polemic requires heavy-handed obfuscation, and an intellectual treatise subtle distinctions; caught between a rock and a squishy place, she waffles and consequently delivers neither. Unlike most culture warriors, her priority is examining social phenomena rather than constructing oversimplifications for the purpose of demonizing political opponents. Even in the final chapter, where she addresses the "ethics gap" between and the polarization of the mainstream and dissident cultures, Himmelfarb notes that they "are not utterly separate and disparate" and that they still "remain firmly fixed within ‘one nation.'Ê" This moderating language reflects an optimism built on her Burkean faith in the law as a vehicle for reinforcing moral values. Wayward Americans need not be purged, Himmelfarb graciously allows, because wise public policy can redeem them. Yet there is also an enormous moral rigidity here. In discussing the role of civil society as a moralizing force, for example, she attacks the promotion of educational ideologies that are "antithetical to the kind of moral character that civil society is meant to encourage." The tone of this comment is striking:For Himmelfarb the great questions of moral philosophy have been settled, the content of morality is clear and fixed, and her role is simply to observe society and be appalled. Himmelfarb flirts with both sides of the distinction between sincerity and smugness.