Sunday, August 10, 2014


Recently saw "Jersey Boys" and was struck by what seemed to me to be a sub-text; that is, for a group of guys who grew up within the strict manners and mores of a society and a Church to decide to do whatever they felt like doing instead led inevitably to a series of personal and communal disasters.

This was by no means the Message of the film, although I suspect that Clint Eastwood would not have been bothered if told about its presence. But to "read the text" of the film was to see clearly that one selfish and hurtful act leads to a geometric progression of subsequent selfish and hurtful acts.

In short, the history of "the '60's" and thereafter.

Two or three generations from now, someone with the necessary emotional distance will be able to write the definitive book about the effects of this time. That book will not be written by people who suffered through it, partly because the pain is too paralyzing but mostly because most of us still believe --- despite all evidence to the contrary --- that all the various liberating ideologies were right.

It's a little easier to examine how and why it happened, although like all major cultural shifts, its chronology and causality are intricately intertwined and complex. One element, and only one, is the influence of the Humanistic Psychologists --- Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, Erich Fromm et al. These were men who came to their personal and professional maturities in the period leading up to and during the unspeakable horrors of World War II and who concluded that the rationality and faith of Western Civilization were --- patently and obviously were --- inherently corrupt. There was no other explanation for why the Germans --- especially but not uniquely --- had acted the way they had. It could only be true that we had deluded ourselves for hundreds of years that Christianity and science were the paths that led to an ever more humane progress.

Their alternative, articulated and argued in smart, thoughtful, and effective books, was to replace rationality with emotion, religious faith with the dynamics of personal relationship. Hence Dr. Rogers' "client-centered therapy" grounded in Rousseauian ideals of the inherent perfection of every human and meant to lead to the flowering of each uniquely wonderful self.

Another element was how innocent, naive, and --- therefore --- vulnerable our generation was to these seductions. It has long been a cliche that the generation of men returning from service in World War II were steadfastly silent about their experiences. The result was a social and psychic separation from their children that had many consequences, few of them beneficial.

They had lived through one kind of horror during the long Great Depression and a whole other set of horrors during the War. Now they came back, moved to the new suburbs, had children, and committed to protecting them from the kind of pain they had endured for so long. The unhappy unintended consequence of this approach to child-rearing was to keep us ignorant of "how the world wags and what wags it." That kind of ignorance leads to a lack of wisdom, foolishness, and that made us vulnerable.

A third element was that those on whom we depended for guidance --- not only parents but priests and pastors and nuns, teachers and counselors, professors and politicians, and eventually the entirety of the mass and massively influential entertainment complex --- had been seduced by the primacy of emotion and desire.

After a while, neither from the pulpit nor in popular entertainment, was one encouraged to believe that acting on principle was better --- for individuals and for society --- than acting on feeling.

I am reminded often lately of a moment during my first Rehearsal Dinner. I was expected to stand up and say something. Nor surprisingly, I was not prepared and had never thought for a moment about preparing something. As I stood there hemming and hawing, my best friend and Best Man said, "Just tell us how you feel." To him, to me, and to everyone there, that seemed perfectly apposite. I realize now that it was a metaphor for what was to come.

Barely more than 5 months after the event that began "The '60's" as a cultural phenomenon and we were already imbued.

The wisdom writers, to use a general phrase, are still available to us and one day we will turn back to them. In the meantime, there is still the occasional satirical attack on the status quo and the occasional preachment from the mass entertainment complex (especially, perhaps, The Lord of the Rings). And there are the millions of people who choose to lead lives of decency, honesty, truthfulness, modesty, trustworthiness, accountability, and caring.

"There is," as Aragorn said in time of great peril, "always Hope." As we hope, let us do what we can can, as T.S. Eliot said, to "redeem the time."


  1. Homogeneity of appearance thought or action is the path of least resistance. I think we would agree that individuation and independent thought should be celebrated. The flip side, the cost of this is a loss of sense of community and common purpose. I would say American exceptionalism is a greater threat to who our promise than the liberalization of the 60s. The finest generation went from conservation of resources to wanton consumerism. Will it take another world war to unite us into selfless endeavors or is there no turning back? I would submit to you that rising wage inequality driven by the corporate class has been more destabilizing to the American way of life than unshaven armpits. Aragon will have to remember that history repeats itself. - Z

    1. Dear Z ---

      Always good to hear from the Progressive wing of the party.

      It is possible to have commonly held principles without resulting in "homogeneity." The alternatives are not either license or conformity. What we should strive for is a willingness to embrace the burden of freedom; that is, the courage to make informed and principled decisions. For both the individual and society, this is much better than self-expression as an unlimited good.

      As to the current state of things, I agree with your assessment, including the culpability of those who believe that there is nothing to believe in but getting what you want. You emphasize the "corporate class," and rightly, but this is an attitude that is wide and deep in contemporary society.

      I believe that America is exceptional, simply a historical truth. But you may very well be right that the way that some people interpret that has led us and could easily continue to lead us (and others) into very bad places. But I confess that I feel overwhelmed by ignorance and lack of understanding in this regard.

      But I will say this without qualification: The only way out of the things you so rightly condemn, whether it's "wanton consumerism" or foolish foreign involvements, is to embrace an ethic of principle. As long as it's your interest vs. my interest, there is no way out. And an ethic of principle will necessarily have something to say about some forms of self-expression.

      There is no greater champion of independent thought than I, but not all manifestations of individuation are good for the individual or for the society.

      An ethic based on principle (Aristotle being the prime example) is a box, certainly, but a very large box inside of which all manner of eccentricity can be tolerated and celebrated.

      Aristotelian ethics would never, for example, lead to "error has no rights."

      The irony here, if that is the appropriate term, is that an ethic of principle offers the best way to limit or eliminate the selfish excesses you condemn.