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A Narcissism of Small Differences

Why is everyone still talking about Christopher Lasch? An intellectual of the generation that came of age in the Fifties, he began his career something of a Marxist but, by the time of his death in 1994, had settled on a politics that combined an intransigent anti-capitalism with traditional stances on cultural matters. He had abandoned the Left, without quite having embraced the Right.

Since 2016 he has enjoyed a following on the millennial center-right and is now read increasingly in certain quadrants of the Left, not without some controversy. Lasch is today the universal lamplight of the advocates of a culturally Right but economically Left politics, the potential of which—at least, as its advocates tell us—is very great, but ill served by the current arrangement of the two US parties.

The title of Lasch’s last book, Revolt of the Elites (1996), also the one most central to his current revival, is based on Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses (1930). While Ortega had complained that the middle class—“mass man,” as he puts it—was ruining culture, Lasch argued it was the elites, the “top 20 percent,” who were ruining American society. Noblesse oblige, in its literal sense,is the gist of the book. Lasch followed Carlyle in arguing that unfettered capitalism had dislocated individuals in the top stratum of society from their natural role as moral figures within local communities. American elites now thought and acted only for themselves, preserving their old social obligations only in a hollow, abstract, self-serving devotion to social justice, seeking refuge from the meaninglessness of their own lives in the therapeutic consolations of “identity” and “self-care”—and this was destroying the country.

It is easy enough to find examples in accordance with the theory. For example: I once worked briefly at Stanford University’s alumni magazine, where my responsibilities involved reading over very large numbers of obituaries of graduates of the university. Though Stanford’s reputation has itself changed in the last two generations from that of a regional to that of a national university, the work provided some insight into the changing habits of American elites. The graduates of the postwar years overwhelmingly moved back to the mid-sized cities in California where they had grown up and became general practitioners or lawyers in local firms. They were well-to-do; they were active in their spare time and after retirement in the Rotary Club or the charitable arms of their churches. They served on the boards of local schools and hospitals.

There are fewer obituaries for graduates of recent years, a more diverse group in several ways. Products of elite universities are good at staying alive. But those there were suggested lives entirely different. This younger generation moved to New York and made a career in finance or stayed in Silicon Valley to work in the tech industry. They did not return to their native towns, they had little to do with civil society in the new places they lived—had seemingly few associations at all beyond their nuclear family, if they made one.

In his essay marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the posthumous publication of Revolt of the Elites, Rod Dreher lauds Lasch for his prescience in charting the decline of solidarity in American life and the rise of therapeutic politics. Dreher’s interest in Lasch is clear enough. Against socialism but disillusioned by the globalized market, skeptical both of foreign wars and political correctness, having lately flirted with the idea that liberalism depends on the “borrowed capital” of its pre-liberal inheritance, Dreher sees in Lasch someone who readily agrees with him on the major issues. They part ways on two chief points: communism and faith.

Dreher is a staunch anticommunist. Lasch was not. Dreher, a Christian, sees the decline of the American republic (that worldly thing) as inevitable, unless divine providence should intervene, dispatching “another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.” If we really are to try to recover a notion of the common good against the rise of therapeutic individualism and its politically correct paladins, something he considers doubtful, we might as well look to Poland and Hungary where, as he says, governing right-wing parties have had considerable success despite having made “mistakes.”

Lasch, on the other hand, had largely become (by the end of his career) an American republican, small-r, of a very old stamp. He was secular, despite a residual mainline Protestantism. Trusting in God to send his saints would have seemed to him useless pietism. In Revolt, he seems to find all the solutions to our current plight lying ready-made in the history and thought of the American 19th century. What to do about the scourge of relativism? Just revive Dewey’s philosophical pragmatism. Discontented with the self-serving elitism of the media? Let’s have Horace Greeley and the partisan press back. This nostalgic attitude and exclusive focus on America is surprising, from a reader of Marx who began his career scolding American liberals for being insufficiently worldly.

The point on journalism is worth underlining. Lasch criticizes the anti-democratic premise of modern journalism, which following the lead of Walter Lippmann found in the ideal of “objectivity” cover for its elitist conviction that the mass of people was incapable of comprehending the world. To Lasch, the republican, the people’s judgment is not improved by how much information they know, but by how much responsibility they are permitted to assume. This doctrine of journalistic objectivity has, since the time of Lasch’s writing, halfway collapsed. Half of the American republic has openly rejected mainstream journalism. Journalism, in turn, has partly doubled down on the ideal of objectivity and “truth,” and partly reconfigured itself to provide, instead of information, affirmation—“moral clarity”—to an elite audience, merely making (as Lasch might say) explicit what had been tacit about the Lippmannian project all along.

Lasch points out an important distortion in the prevailing language in which American liberals speak about their society: the concept of “social mobility.” This is supposed to be the great desideratum of domestic economic policy, to allow some people born, say, in the bottom quintile of incomes to rise to the top quintile. This is the “American dream” of rags to riches.

But it actually isn’t, says Lasch: “social mobility” is a 20th century counterfeit of the old American dream of economic autonomy, which had nothing to do with the relative question of individuals’ wealth compared to society. The original American dream was to achieve self-sufficiency: you have your farm, you live off it, you don’t rely on an employer for a paycheck or on the government for support. It doesn’t matter how many people are richer than you—why grudge them, so long as you can get by and no one tells you what to do? “Social mobility” is for Lasch now a mere ruling myth: to the sociologists, who are quite frank on the point (I myself have heard this publicly stated at a Brookings panel), it does not matter whether social mobility exists, only that Americans can be convinced that it does. Lasch perceived too that a notable corollary of “social mobility,” affirmative action, opts for the purely symbolic elevation of a few members of a subaltern class to the status of aristocrats, in a gesture that serves to reinforce rather than to weaken social hierarchies.

Lasch held, with Montesquieu, that a democratic republic could not long survive with great inequality. But he also thought the prevailing discourse of inequality—that other great liberal economic watchword—foreboded an even stronger hostility to his treasured autonomy. Lasch justifies his refusal in Revolt to endorse social-democratic expansion of the welfare state on the grounds that depending on the state to sustain them would be an even worse blow for Americans’ autonomy than unbridled capitalism.

Economic autonomy, Lasch believed, had been the source of the moral strength and unity of the American republic. Class conflict and class hierarchies were equally discouraged: the nation’s majority both owned property and worked, formed strong communities of responsible citizens who chose to help each other instead of relying on paternalistic institutions, and participated in both intellectual and physical labor, keeping its discourse healthy.

Never mind that his evidence for this happy, autonomous republic is nearly all composed of statements by contemporaries—Lincoln’s attack on the “mud-sill” theorists, e.g.—rather than inquiry into the actual conditions which existed during the period: it is true that Lasch gave us a genuinely touching Jeffersonian lament. This does not change the fact that, as he admits elsewhere, this agrarian vision of autonomy has been obsolete for more than a century.

The economic, political and intellectual institutions capable of resolving the current crisis will not look like those of the 19th century, at least in form, but we can be confident they will look distinctively American.

Lasch is fairly criticized on other fronts—his opening of Revolt with the old canard about George H. W. Bush and the grocery store scanner, his claim about worsening crime in the cities when, in the 90’s, the situation was actually improving, or the way the book is studded with the usual meaningless statistics about Americans not being able to name all the amendments in the Bill of Rights (the likes of which are constantly being generated apparently for the sole purpose of being injected into works of social criticism). But this is the book’s core failing: at every point, the fierce accuracy of Lasch’s diagnoses dissolves into feeble, backwards-looking reminiscences when it comes time to suggest an alternative. This is not the usual problem of social criticism—that one does not know how to solve the problems one perceives—but something worse: the solutions on which Lasch was helplessly fixed are simply incoherent in the contemporary landscape, no less so in 1996 than in 2021.

Now that there is no land left to be homesteaded, how can Americans expect to recover the autonomy in economic life which, according to Lasch, guaranteed the country’s moral and political health? Dreher seems to think a solution may be found abroad, but—to say nothing of the examples he fixes on—the matter is difficult. We cannot find in other countries ready-made solutions to our problems which can simply be copied with a few modifications, as Dreher seems to suggest. Instead, we must inquire how other countries manage to find in their national repertoire what is necessary to address new problems. We must judge the results of these efforts: what has been gained? At what cost?

Only such an approach will help us address to our own challenge with our different national repertoire. A great part of that challenge lies in adapting Americanism to a landscape that makes dependence inevitable. No longer the autonomous moral creatures of Lasch’s writing—if indeed they ever were—Americans today depend on very much: on their employers, on tech companies and their platforms, on the rapidly changing moral rules on speech and conduct generated in elite circles, on federal business loans and checks to compensate for coronavirus damage, on global supply chains that rely on foreign countries hostile to the American worldview, and so on.

The economic, political and intellectual institutions capable of resolving the current crisis will not look like those of the 19th century, at least in form, but we can be confident they will look distinctively American. These institutions must, in order to succeed, appeal successfully at some level to the national philosophy that Lasch’s predecessor, the American historian Richard Hofstadter, called the “American political tradition.” Like the Progressives and New Dealers, like Reagan and even like Trump, the next exponents of this tradition will have no choice but to dress up new doctrines in the garb of old ones, to greater or less effect.

This will be necessary because even the elites that Lasch so despised remain Americans at heart. His assertion that they have “more in common with their counterparts in Brussels” than their countrymen is exactly wrong. Every European knows that the American who reads the New York Times is no less American in philosophy and outlook than the one who watches Fox News. America’s divisions between red and blue are real, but they continue to be best understood as a narcissism (a familiar word for Lasch) of small differences.

Reader Discussion

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on February 17, 2021 at 10:45:32 am

The solution seems simple. America has to go back to its roots and recognize that individuals have natural rights, agency, and sovereignty. End of story.

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Vangel Vesovski
on February 17, 2021 at 12:51:08 pm

In his attack on anarcho-communism, Murray Rothbard noted that it was not a crime to be ignorant of economics, which was a specialized discipline that few understood. He argued that it was totally irresponsible for people who were ignorant of economics to talk about economic subjects while remaining embrace that ignorance. Lasch, Dreher, and Nick Burns, the author, lack the knowledge to support many of their positions. Readers need to be sceptical and try to improve their knowledge so that they can think for themselves about the complex issues that are being discussed.

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Vangel Vesovski
on February 17, 2021 at 14:08:10 pm

Narcissism my patoot. Archimedes can teach the author herein about small differences, likewise about aspect and perspective.

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Michael Bond
on February 17, 2021 at 14:53:26 pm

What a refreshingly clear and sensible essay! I especially appreciate the recognition that the economic and social conditions in the United States are completely different in 2021 from what they were in 1830. I think it was Theodore Roosevelt who especially recognized that government would have to play a different role in an economy of massive industrial firms. Government will have to play a yet different role in an economy of service industries, advanced (mostly electronic) technology, and the globalization not just of manufacturing but of finance. It seems to me just right to say that we will have to find our own solutions working out of our own repertoire of political and social ideas. I certainly don't find much inspiration in Poland or Hungary. I also appreciate the remark that for all his intellectual penetration, Lasch did not always turn to empirical history to examine actual conditions in eras he idealized. This is critically important for avoiding the mistake of looking, say, to the alleged economic autonomy of Jeffersonian small farmer before the Civil War while overlooking the condition of slaves (not a small proportion of the population) or the already breaking waves of immigration (Germany, Ireland). There seems an unhappy tendency to pick out some portion of the population and regard them as the "real" Americans. It is good to be reminded that readers of the New York Times are just as much Americans as watchers of Fox News. To say that is not to be blandly inclusive, but it is to insist that real solutions need to address our problems and not settle for expressing rage at some segment of the body politic.

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Donald Marshall
on February 17, 2021 at 15:37:24 pm

Burns is right; the social conditions of a century ago are not those of today. However, those of today did not develop independently of ideology. Adoption and pressing of "progressive" and "socialist" convictions a century ago by American intellectuals and politicians at least partially, and I would argue significantly, created the dependencies Burns rightly notes preclude the kind of personal/family autarky that was the ideal of 18th and 19th century America. But the "who is a real American" trope is a red herring. The issue is which ideology will prevail in 21st century America: one that accepts, even welcomes, even insists upon, a deepening of those dependencies, a furthering of the diminution in the individual's sense of responsibility for himself and his life, further constriction of the areas in which an individual is permitted to exercise his will and live with the consequences, in favor of the greater perfecting of what Tocqueville already discovered in 1830 America (After having thus taken each individual one by one into its powerful hands, and having molded him as it pleases, the sovereign power extends its arms over the entire society; it covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules, which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot break through to go beyond the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them); all this, or its opposite? The progressive shrinking of human life and human beings has long since become the thesis, and the tenets of personal action and personal responsibility, which can only regain traction by a progressive disablement of government reach, must be the antithesis.

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QET
on February 17, 2021 at 20:27:53 pm

The genius of the founder/ framers (that the progressives refuse to acknowledge) was to extract from their study of history the core make up of human nature within a governed polity. In 400BC, 1787, and 2021 human nature includes virtuous and tyrannical components, and will retain that characteristic for the next 300+ years. Thus a government designed to secure liberty for its citizens while being restrained from tyrannical inclinations.

Jefferson's concept of a financially independent and secure yeoman farmer was matched by the later era industrialists, artisans, and workers who managed to save and invest, thereby avoiding the need to rely on governmental handouts and dependency. Of course not everyone was able to achieve that level of personal security (and absolute security is not available to any of us). We need to explore how to bring a greater fraction of our populace into a similar state of minimal reliance on governmental handouts. In our information and service economy perhaps the ideas behind capital homesteading can replace the 1862 land rushes. Whether via gifts, grants, or loans, providing an initial nest egg at birth for investment and growth probably deserves more discussion. If that is not viable we will still need to find some venue to allow citizens to divorce themselves from the "failed excessive elites" who have proven fallow in their expertise in too many cases (reduced Texas electrical power in Winter?)

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R2L
on February 17, 2021 at 20:41:16 pm

Bravo! Thank you for sniffing out this aspect of today's essayist for us. Integrity is a hard virtue to pick up again after it has been set down.

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R2L
on February 18, 2021 at 09:49:23 am

The question is, what is the value of technology, if it serves to undermine the inherent Dignity of the human person as a beloved son or daughter? Certainly the “ pandemic” has illuminated that which man can know through both Faith and reason.

Technology is merely a means to move information from one point to another. Whether technology serves for The Common Good, depends upon the character of the content being imputed, based often on “the content of the character” of the person who desires to relay the information being imputed.

Technology can be used as a means to enhance the value of the State only when it serves for The Common Good. Using Technology to promote the atheist materialist over population alarmist globalist agenda can never serve for The Common Good,

We, who desire that this Nation, like all Nations, can and should strive to serve for The Common Good, recognize that in this life, our perfection, that moment of our hopeful, Redemption, can only come, Through Christ, In The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, Thus, as Saint John Henry Newman stated, “God Has Created me to do some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He Has Not Committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons...therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am.”

There is unity in diversity, but only when diversity serves for The Common Good.

Technology can be used to help build a Nation, but it becomes destructive when it no longer serves for The Common Good.

We can know through both Faith and reason, apart from God, Who Is Perfect Love, Technology can never serve for The Common Good.

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N.D.
on February 18, 2021 at 11:20:21 am

Regarding technology and the “economic, political, intellectual institutions capable of solving the current crisis”, and I would add, from a Christian perspective, in regards to Proportionality and those who are most susceptible to being harmed by Covid 19, why promote the use of a vaccine that may offer protection for an unknown period of time, possibly with or without harmful consequences, which are currently, unknown, by targeting the spike protein of Covid 19, rather than using known medicine to treat the disease, known to be safe and effective?
Why not study the effect that these proven treatments have on the spike protein to determine whether or not targeting the spike protein for a short period of time can kill the virus while leaving healthy cells unchanged?

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-74101-0

The sequence at Spike S1/S2 site enables cleavage by furin and phospho-regulation in SARS-CoV2 but not in SARS-CoV1 or MERS-CoV
* Mihkel Örd, Ilona Faustova & Mart Loog 
Scientific Reports
volume
 10, Article number: 16944 (2020) Cite this article
* 4366 Accesses
* 2 Citations
* 75 Altmetric
* Metrics details

“The 4-residue insertion underlined in the sequence 674YQTQTNSPRRAR↓SVASQ690 of the SARS-CoV2 Spike protein, where the arrow indicates the S1/S2 proteolytic cleavage site, contains a previously established cleavage motif RxxR↓x for furin5,9 (Fig. 1b). After the release of the SARS-CoV2 sequence, it was also promptly realized that an analogous R-x-x-R motif was present in the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus MERS-CoV that caused an outbreak in 20124. Strikingly, however, the predicted furin cleavage motif was missing in viruses belonging to the same clade as SARS-CoV2, including SARS-CoV1, the virus causing an outbreak in 20034.“

“The sequence at Spike S1/S2 site enables cleavage by furin and phospho-regulation in SARS-CoV2 but not in SARS-CoV1 or MERS-CoV”

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18712106/

Furin and its biological role]
[Article in Russian]
V K Kibirev, T V Osadchuk, Iu L Radavskiĭ
* PMID: 18712106
Abstract
The survey deals with structure, properties and biological role of furin, the calcium-dependent serine endoprotease, which is expressed in all tissues and cell lines examined. It is the best-characterized representative of the mammalian subtilisin-like family of proprotein convertases, which is capable to cleave precursors of a wide variety of proteins, including hormones, growth factors, serum proteins, proteases of the blood-clotting system, matrix metalloproteinases, receptors, viral envelope glycoproteins, and bacterial exotoxins, and so on. The enzyme plays the essential role in embryogenesis, homeostasis; it is also involved in tumor metastasis, activation and virulence of many bacterial and viral pathogens and in neurodegenerative processes associated with Alzheimer's disease. Furin is a very specific enzyme: it recognizes the cleavage-site sequence Arg-Xaa-Lys/Arg-Arg and catalyzes the hydrolysis of the precursors, containing a pair of basic amino acids Arg-Arg or Lys-Arg. The enzyme is a multidomain protein which is initially synthesized as 100 kDa glycosylated profurin consisting of 794 amino acid residues (for human furin) and including a N-terminal signal peptide, propeptide, catalytic domain, possessing approximately 30% homology to subtilisin, a well-conserved P-domain, Cys-rich domain, transmembrane domain and cytoplasmic domain. The active site cleft of furin differs considerably from that of subtilisin with respect to the depth, shape and molecule charge. In furin it is a canyon-like groove with clusters of negatively charged residues along it. Furin inhibitors are rather promising therapeutic agents for treating furin-mediated diseases and bacterial infections. Most furin inhibitors belong to proteins or peptides. The protein-based inhibitors include both naturally occurring and bioengineered variants of protease inhibitors. The peptide-based inhibitors are represented by polyarginines, peptidyl chloromethyl ketones, aminomethyl ketones or ketomethylene pseudopeptides, isostere-containing cyclic peptides, short peptides derived from the prosegments of furin or al-PDX-related peptides. The nonpeptide inhibitors are natural products of the andrographolide family, certain metal complexes of pyridine derivatives and small molecules derived from 2.5-dideoxystreptamine. The furin inhibitors may be used not only as valuable tools for studying furin action, but also as therapeutic agents for furin-dependent diseases.
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* Furin: a mammalian subtilisin/Kex2p-like endoprotease involved in processing of a wide variety of precursor proteins. Nakayama K.
Biochem J. 1997 Nov 1;327 ( Pt 3)(Pt 3):625-35. doi: 10.1042/bj3270625.
PMID: 9599222 Free PMC article. Review.
* Synthetic peptides derived from the prosegments of proprotein convertase 1/3 and furin are potent inhibitors of both enzymes. Basak A, Lazure C.
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* The crystal structure of the proprotein processing proteinase furin explains its stringent specificity. Henrich S, Cameron A, Bourenkov GP, Kiefersauer R, Huber R, Lindberg I, Bode W, Than ME.
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N.D.

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