A Christopher Lasch quote

I awoke the other night and was unable to return to sleep. One glass of milk and a tuna sandwich later, there was I with the London morning cold outside reading through Christopher Lasch's limpid prose from the early 1990s. I usually don't put excerpts up on this blog, but I thought this passage from Communitarianism or Populism might provoke a few minds;

I hear overtones of 'compassion', the slogan of social democracy, a slogan that has always been used to justify welfare programmes, the expansion of the state's custodial and tutelary functions, and the bureaucratic rescue of women, children and other victims of mistreatment. The ideology of compassion, however agreeable to our ears, is one of the principal influences, in its own right, on the subversion of civic life, which depends not so much on compassion as on mutual respect. A misplaced compassion degrades both the victims, who are reduced to objects of pity, and their would-be benefactors, who find it easier to pity their fellow citizens than to hold them up to impersonal standards, attainment of which would entitle them to respect.

We pity those who suffer, and we pity most of all, those who suffer conspicuously; but we reserve respect for those who refuse to exploit their suffering for the purposes of pity. We respect those who are willing to be held accountable for their actions, who submit to exacting and impersonal standards impartially applied. Today it is widely believed, at least by members of the caring class, that standards are inherently oppressive, that far from being impersonal they discriminate against women, blacks, and minorities in general. Standards, we are told, reflect the cultural hegemony of dead white European males. Compassion compels us to recognize the injustice of imposing them upon everybody else.

When the ideology of compassion leads to this kind of absurdity, it is time to call it into question. Compassion has become the human face of contempt. Democracy once implied opposition to every form of double standard. Today we accept double standards--as always, a recipe for second-class citizenship--in the name of humanitarian concern. Having given up the effort to raise the general level of competence--the old meaning of democracy--we are content to institutionalise competence in the caring class, which arrogates to itself the job of looking after everybody else.

Lasch goes on to argue the case for an elevated understanding of populism, which he sees as essentially a republican principle. The passage kept me awake, because I did not agree with it and yet I was entranced. Perhaps it was the lateness of the hour, or perhaps the silence in the night threw me into thinking about what Lasch was saying--but here was a cultured man, slightly missing the point. Minds can be disciplined and made robust in any number of ways, and modern European culture was for most of its existence as a canonical form in awe of Roman, Greek and even Ottomann exemplars that were long dead. Han poetry or the lyrics of cheap music can have as much of an effect as the beauties of one of the duller Shakespeare plays. The Koran has its poetry and plumbers and rat catchers might have clearer minds than those considered to be philosophers.

What is encountered in Lasch's work is a guild socialist who distrusts progressives, and social democrats, and who loathed marketeers despite the intimate connexions of all three with the universities and republicanism within which he located himself. He was a man who vaunted republican virtue but understood that a culture of law and individual rights eventually ended up as a balance of selfishness and a sort of deliberate self-delusion. He lauded populism as plain-speaking purity, but I wonder--had the man ever been near New York or Chicago beyond histories of the common school movement? Had he ever had a robust conversation with a Marine, or a docker? And most of all, he had an almost Catholic expectation of immutable decline, bordering on despair. Yet, in my faith, to despair is a sin for a good reason. Hope is a vital counterbalance to love and self-love

I love Lasch's writing, and understand his rage and parallax view of the academic class. He seems sometimes to spend his time muttering out histories of the fall of everything in between a yearning that Yeats once elaborated, that the old, bald, learned heads of those who adopted a shuffling, ink-coughing outlook would be appalled 'had their Catullus walked that way'. I've been thinking of that since the Middle Temple revels yesterday.

The words of Lasch didn't do the trick for me--they woke me up. I assume, if you are reading this far, they didn't put you under either, reader. It's a little late for Christmas books. I know this because I spent an hour in the rain in a soviet-style queue outside the post office this morning, waiting to pick up a package and thinking about Lasch and Yeats.

If you wanted one for the new year, however, you could do worse than this. The critical comments beneath, referencing Ortega Y Gasset, some denouncing the way cultural critiques take the eye away from the realities of class and corporate exploitation, are interesting in themselves too.

Joe Bataan's jazzy, pre-salsoul 'ordinary guy' seems appropriate. Here's a good version I found on youtube;


Anonymous said…
I'm intrigued by the link to the Middle Temple revels. What's the connection?
Martin Meenagh said…
Oh, I was at Revels the other night and had a great time. I love my Inn. In between sketches, however, I looked around and saw all these clever, often passionate and decent heads escaping from the criminal trials and family law and harsh disputes they were advocates in and thought of Yeat's poem, that's all. And Lewis Carroll's Barrister's Dream.

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