Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Lonely Crowd

I’m enjoying rereading David Riesman’s (et al.) “The Lonely Crowd.”  I read it, or maybe quickly scanned it, back in college.  Published in 1950, it purported to examine the changing character of America’s dominant culture, the white upper middle class, that Riesman seemed to take as normative for America, and rightfully so.  More particularly, his subject was the male white upper middle class: women, i.e., housewives, serving in support roles.  Those in the lower classes, working classes, members of racial minorities, and those living in rural areas were not so much dismissed as taken for granted.

It doesn’t appear that he meant it to be good or bad.  It’s just the way he and his team saw America and reported on it.  At the midpoint of the century, an almost peaceful nation, not yet fully embroiled in Korea or jittery over Russian nuclear bombs, was turning to a more passive go along to get along way of life in which individual success depended on one’s ability to blend in, leaders leading of course, but not too much.  It was a different place than the no holds barred Robber Barron era, or even the driven striving for a piece of the action of the early twentieth century, or  the striving for survival of the Great Depression years.  

Although he didn’t say so out loud, it appears that he saw a nation of returning service men who were tired of that kind of striving and comfortable with a uniform life under orders where promotion could be planned and predicted.  His narrative wanders and wobbles all over the place, so it’s hard to figure out if he was predicting a future, describing the present, or making any kind of value judgment.  As one who grew up in those years, that itself seems to be telling.  He wrote as a man lost, fussing with maps and compasses, and probing in this way or that for a clear sense of direction without ever finding one.

I don’t think he was wrong about what he saw, but he was like the apocryphal frog in the stew pot who didn’t recognize the water was about to boil.  It appears that he ignored signs pointing to massive societal changes about to erupt in civil rights and women’s rights because populations concerned with them were not important to the white male upper middle class he assumed to be normative for America.  They could be ignored because they had no significant role in making important decisions for the nation.

I wonder what a contemporary David Riesman might say about America today?  Would he or she be equally blind to what is just over the horizon begging to be recognized?  For instance, our local newspaper reflects well the character of our area, even as its faithful readers make fun of it.  I think it views the future mostly by looking in the rear view mirror, which is, I suspect, the same posture of those who believe they are key to community decision making because, well, they are, and that’s the way it is.  Here and there across the nation astute observers, some of them journalists, report on signs of major societal changes about to force their way onto the stage, but they are seldom picked up by editorial boards or agents of the “popular media,” whatever that is. The fact is, we are not very good at anticipating the future, even at close range.  Muddling through is what we do best.  


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