Commentary Magazine

One Nation, Two Cultures by Gertrude Himmelfarb

One Nation, Two Cultures: A Moral Divide
by Gertrude Himmelfarb
Knopf. 192 pp. $23.00

Of all those who write about the moral condition of America, Gertrude Himmelfarb is the best—partly because she is a historian, able to dip into deep reserves of knowledge to bring up parallels and precedents; partly because she has a strong taste for hard evidence and makes impressive use of statistics; partly because she is cool-headed and refuses to become hysterical about the awfulness of things; and finally because she writes well and succinctly.

In this 190-page essay, Himmelfarb covers a lot of ground: the moral consequences of capitalism, the diseases of democracy, civil society, the family and its enemies, the problems of legislating morality, religion as a political institution, and, especially, America’s two cultures—the one hedonistic, the other puritanical—and the “ethics gap” between them. Anyone who is genuinely concerned about America’s plight, or merely wants to talk about it, has no excuse for not reading this book. Himmelfarb has done the work, absorbed the evidence, marshaled the arguments, and produced, with modesty and sense, some tentative conclusions.

What, then, is to blame for the confused moral state of contemporary America, and in particular for everything summed up by the phrase, “the permissive society”? In a way, as Himmelfarb says, it is capitalism. The roots of the phenomenon lie not in the 1960’s, when the shoots appeared above the surface, but in the 1950’s, the supposedly stuffy Eisenhower years when American capitalism really went to work to create a consumer society.

A century earlier, John Stuart Mill had warned that a “progressive economy” was conducive to materialism and hedonism; in order to restrain this process, Mill wanted to keep the economy in “a stationary state.” Much closer to our time, the Austrian-born American economist Joseph Schumpeter argued that capitalism, being simultaneously creative of wealth and destructive of society, would destroy itself, too, in the end. He was wrong about that, but right about capitalism’s propensities. As Daniel Bell pointed out 25 years ago, capitalism contains cultural contradictions: it demands self-discipline and deferred satisfaction in order to function at all, but in the process of expanding stimulates a self-indulgence that is impatient of all restraints.

I think it would help to understand this process better if we abandoned the word “capitalism,” or at least ceased to see it as an ideology, or “ism,” deliberately created by man in the same way as Communism. Capitalism is something that, unless you act drastically to stop it, occurs quite naturally at a certain point in human development. The human brain, a feverish force in itself, ceaselessly seeks—and finds—novelty, and the way we run business is merely one expression of this restless fecundity. Given human intelligence, there can be no such thing as stasis in any area where humans have the power to change things.

The strength of capitalism is that it is continually transforming itself, absorbing lessons, overcoming difficulties, and setting ever-more ambitious objectives. But in so doing, it reflects a human dynamism that is destructive of the status quo in every field of activity—politics, religion, morals, and values no less than economic arrangements. The same dynamic pursuit of “progress” transformed medieval art into the art of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo, and then in due course destroyed the culture of high art in the early 20th century. A religious Great Awakening will be followed by an equally feverish and determined pursuit of sensual satisfaction, in the next generation or the one after.

America, being a society founded virtually from nothing in the early 17th century, was able, when the techniques became available, to embrace industrial capitalism unhampered by the restraints of a long past and with a wholeheartedness that Europe and Japan cannot muster even today. That is why America is the global engine of enterprise and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. Seen from a European viewpoint, America is a society of excess or extremes—excessive both in its puritanism and in its libertinism. No European society would have embarked on the hazardous frontal assault of Prohibition, or the current attempt, by law and public pressure, to stamp out smoking. But no European society could have created Hollywood, in all its evil manifestations.

Wall Street, Disneyland, political correctness, Star Wars: these are seen by many Europeans as manifestations of the American propensity to push things farther and faster than desirable—even though the Europeans do tend lamely to follow the U.S. example in the end. Europeans were amazed equally by Ronald Reagan’s religiosity and Bill Clinton’s moral squalor, shocked both by Kenneth Starr’s prosecution strategy and by the baffling way it failed to dent Clinton’s poll ratings. They are appalled at the periodic mass-killings by maniacs running amok with firearms, and shaken—or say they are shaken—by the number of Americans executed for murder.



In short, America is a revolutionary country, albeit one that, in a rich paradox, is remarkable for nothing so much as the stability of its political system, which has survived more than two centuries of astonishing growth and change and one of the fiercest civil wars in history. America was settled by the revolutionary desire to break away from the corruptions of Europe, and it created the built-in revolutionary dynamism of the world’s largest economy. In the last half-century, as Himmelfarb points out, it has also created a revolutionary counterculture, one aspect of a cultural revolution that itself embraces a racial revolution, a sexual revolution, a welfare revolution, a revolution of political protest, a psychological revolution—also known as the “cult of narcissism”—not to speak of a technological revolution beginning with mass TV and continuing into the Internet and countless other manifestations of rapid change in the way we communicate.

In these circumstances, culture wars are inevitable. It could even be argued that America has always had culture wars, at least since Roger Williams broke away from Massachusetts to found a new state. Initially, America’s vast size and space, and the ever-moving frontier, made it easy to accommodate such wars. Now they tend to become battles of attrition. In this sense, “one nation, two cultures” is normality for America. And the process works both ways: the restless dynamism that destroys the static good also goes on to destroy the horrors it itself spawns. It is not only decent men and women who are crushed beneath the juggernaut wheels.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, while rightly deploring many diseased aspects of contemporary America, is too truthful and too good a historian to omit signs of health. She cites the remarkable recent statistics showing the fall in crime, including the 75-percent drop in the annual rate of homicides in New York City. In the latter half of the 90’s, the number of people on welfare dropped by a third, and decreases were likewise recorded in illegitimate births, teenage pregnancies, abortions, and the rate of divorces.

Another fact she notes is that while, from 1990 to 1996, undergraduate enrollments in public colleges increased by only 4 percent, and in private colleges by only 5 percent, in evangelical colleges they rose by a whopping 25 percent. Catholic and Jewish “day schools,” which maintain traditional standards of discipline and hard work, are flourishing as never before. Think about that: in an age where knowledge is more closely linked to wealth than ever before, parents wishing to give their children a head start must send them to a religious school. There is another rich paradox here, one that recalls John Locke’s complacent judgment about the birth of commercial society in England: “Today, morality is much the best bargain.”

But then, America is the land of paradox as well as the land of excess. At the beginning of her book, Himmelfarb quotes Adam Smith’s opinion that, “in every civilized society,” it is normal to have “two different schemes or systems of morality current at the same time”—the one “strict or austere,” the other “liberal or loose.” The industrious working class, Smith argued, has to be strict, because its members will not physically survive if they give way to vice; by contrast, “people of fashion” can afford to indulge in bad habits. The same remains true today, with this difference: the entire population, from skilled workers upward, can now afford a bit of debauchery if it pleases. To that extent, working-class morality is no longer a countervailing social pillar—a fact that, in my view, saved Bill Clinton from removal from office, or in any event sustained his poll ratings.

At the same time, and by still another of those American paradoxes, Clinton is a despised figure, held in contempt and largely rejected. As this one example shows, it is impossible these days to present a simple picture of moral trends in America. The nation is bigger and more diverse than ever before, its hedonism more frenetic but its puritanism also taking new forms. An example of the latter, and one that both amazes Europeans and makes some of them envious, is that up to two million American children, whose parents have become appalled by the disastrous condition of the public schools, are now educated at home—something Europe does not permit by law.

America is the freest country on earth, and that freedom is its salvation. It is freedom that makes it possible for every American to fight the good fight in the culture wars that seem periodically to be America’s lot—and that Gertrude Himmelfarb dissects here with her customary luminous intelligence, her finely balanced sensibility, and her sharp pen.


About the Author

Paul Johnson is the author of Modern Times, A History of Christianity, and A History of the Jews, among many other books.

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