Posted December 13, 2003
Book: One Nation, Two Cultures: A searching examination of American society in the aftermath of our cultural revolution
Author: Gertrude Himmelfarb
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, pp. 179
Excerpt from Jacket:
In One Nation, Two Cultures, one of today’s most respected and articulate cultural critics gives us a penetrating examination of the gulf between the two sides of American society — a divide that cuts across class, racial, ethnic, political, and sexual lines. While one side originated in the traditional idea of republican virtue, the other emerged from the counterculture of the late 1960s and has become the dominant culture today.
In clear and vigorous prose, Himmelfarb argues that while the dominant culture pervades journalism, academia, televison, and film, a “dissident culture” continues to promote the values of family, a civil society, sexual morality, privacy, and patriotism. The clash between these two cultures affects all areas of American society.
Despite her forceful critique, Himmelfarb sees encouraging signs for the future of American culture. She explores the place of religion, family, and the law in American life and proposes democratic remedies for the nation’s moral and cultural diseases. Though there are many legitimate grievances against government, she contends, our citizenry cannot afford to delegitimize it. And she concludes that it is a tribute to Americans that, without serious social strife, we remain one nation even as we are divided into two cultures.
Excerpt from Book:
To reduce citizenship to the modern idea of civility, the good-neighbor idea, is to belittle not only the political role of the citizen but also the virtues expected of the citizen — the “civic virtues,” as they were known in antiquity and in the early republican thought. It is these virtues Aristotle had in mind when he wrote that the good citizen “should know how to govern like a freeman, and how to obey like a freeman — these are the virtues of a citizen.” Or Montesquieu, when he made ‘virtue’ the distinctive principle of republican government: “It is not a moral, nor a Christian, but a political virtue; and it is the spring which sets the republican government in motion, as honor is the spring which gives motion to monarchy. Hence it is that I have distinguished the love of one’s country, and of equality, by the appellation of political virtue.” Even the Founding Fathers, seeking to create a constitution that would depend on a plurality of interests rather than simply the exercise of virtue, believed that civic virtue — the self-control and self-discipline required for self-governance — was an essential attribute both of those who govern the republic and of those who are governed.
The displacement of “civic virtue” by “civility” has been accompanied by a shift from what has been called the “vigorous” virtues to the “caring” virtues. The vigorous virtues include courage, ambition, adventurousness, audacity, creativity; the caring virtues are respect, trustworthiness, compassion, fairness, decency. The two kinds of virtues are not mutually exclusive, for they pertain to different aspects of life. The caring virtues make for good families, and friends, neighbors and associates; they render daily life, life in civic society, livable and agreeable. Especially in the present condition of society, these are altogether admirable attributes. But they do not preclude others that should command our respect — those vigorous, outsized, heroic virtues that transcend family and community and may even, on occasion, violate the conventions of civility. These are virtues that characterize great leaders, although not necessarily good friends.
If citizenship is demeaned by the habit of “thinking small,” of focusing entirely on the goods and needs of daily life, so is leadership. Presidential candidates for the year 2000 have defined themselves by a succession of campaign slogans and issues befitting, as has been pointed out, them mayor of a small town rather than aspirants for the presidency of the United States. Thus Vice-President Gore has addressed himself, at some length, to such subjects as traffic congestion, the cow manure that pollutes streams, over-the-counter drugs labels, computers in the school room, and an “Airline Passenger Bill of Rights” to compensate passengers, among other things, for lost baggage; while another contender, Elizabeth Dole, the former Secretary of Transportation, prides herself on her proposal to install emergency aisle safety lights on airplanes.
Another candidate, the former senator Bill Bradley, urges us to rebuild civil society rather than look for national heroes to solve our problems. He quotes a character in Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo, “Pity the nation that has no heroes,” to which Galileo resonds, “Pity the nation that needs them.” The senator evidently shares Galileo’s sentiments (or Brecht’s, which is not quite the same thing.) In the wake of recent Washington scandals, so, apparently, do a fair number of people. Presidents once figured prominently among the nation’s heroes. That is no longer the case. Schoolteachers report that in their discussions with students, they “downsize” the conception of the hero. One teacher, explaining that she herself has seen her own heroes fail in recent years, says that when she asks students to identify heroes, she points them to “ordinary heroes, folks who do good works in the communty.”
Table of Contents:
A historical prologue: the “vices of levity” an the “diseases of democracy
Civil society: “he seedbeds of virtue”
The family: “A miniature social system
The law and polity: “legislating morality”
Religion: “The first of their political institutions”
The two culture: “an ethical gap”
Some modest predictions