The Small Matter of Truth
Mises Review 1, No. 3 (Fall 1995)
THE REVOLT OF THE ELITES AND THE BETRAYAL OF DEMOCRACY
W.W. Norton, 1995. x + 276 pgs.
Christopher Lasch loved debate; and in The Revolt of the Elites, a collection of his essays published posthumously, he indicts the American upper and professional classes for abandoning public argument. The elites no longer have roots in their local communities. The issues of public life no longer engage them; spurning contact with their fellow citizens, they move from place to place, concerned only with their own gratification.
His concerns emerge clearly in the book's best essay, "The Common Schools." The essay examines the thought of Horace Mann, the leading promoter of public education in 19th-century America. Lasch credits Mann with sincere concern for public enlightenment and welfare. Yet the movement he supported has led to ruin. "Here is our puzzle, then: why did the success of Mann's program leave us with the social and political disaster he predicted, with uncanny accuracy, in the event of his failure? To put the question this way suggests that there was something inherently deficient in Mann's educational vision, that his program contained some fatal flaw in its very conception" (p. 148).
Lasch locates the fatal flaw in Mann's aversion to politics. Conflict over ideas and policies did not, for him, lie at the essence of civic life. Quite the contrary, conflict was to be shunned; the schools offered a haven from the havoc of political life. Mann termed the intense presidential campaign of 1848, for example, a "Saturnalia of license, evil speaking, and falsehood" (p. 153).
To avoid demeaning conflict, in Mann's view, the schools must confine themselves to allegedly non-controversial views. In particular, clashing religious dogmas have no place in the school; even better, sectarian religions should be excluded altogether from public life. This view did not stem from Mann's aversion to religion. Quite the contrary, he was a devout adherent of those tenets of Christianity common to all believers. By teaching nondenominational Christianity, the schools could insure universal uplift.
But just here is where Lasch's key difficulty arises. "The real objection is that the resulting mixture is so bland that it puts children to sleep instead of awakening feelings of awe and wonder" (p. 157). The clash of opinions in religion, as in politics, must be actively sought, not shunned.
Lasch effectively attacks Mann's assumption that a group of experts possesses some body of non-controversial knowledge about values that requires no debate, but a few features of his treatment stand open to challenge. First, his criticism of Mann stops short. He attacks Mann's view of morals and religion for being bland but fails to raise a more fundamental question: was Mann right?
Is there a core set of beliefs common to all Christians, or more generally, to all religious believers? If there is not, the claim that one has reached some noncontroversial "essence of Christianity", in Harnack's phrase, is itself sectarian propaganda of a particularly insidious sort. Mann had a distinct religious agenda, as R.J. Rushdoony has ably discussed in The Messianic Character of American Education. Lasch wants popular debate, which he takes to be the basis of democracy, but what about truth?
Lasch would no doubt reply that I have posed the wrong question. He agrees with the great American pragmatist John Dewey that there are no absolute foundations for knowledge. "[I]t is impossible, at this late date, to resurrect the absolutes that once seemed to provide secure foundations on which to build dependable structures of thought. The quest for certainty . . . was misguided to begin with" (p. 13). The truth that there are no truths, the certainty that all is uncertain: I cannot think that this is the formula for vibrant public debate or the cure for rootlessness among the elites.
A similar mixture of insight and misguided relativist assumptions is elsewhere in evidence. Lasch rightly criticizes the view that religion is a nostalgic myth, inappropriate for the present more developed age. Yet Lasch once more ignores what to my mind is a more basic question. Is religion true? Whether religious belief has good or bad consequences does not tell us. I suspect that Lasch would not have welcomed this query.
But the question of truth arises once more, at the very heart of Lasch's argument. He vigorously indicts the professional classes for weakening public debate. His criticism of Walter Lippmann's contrast between the uninformed public and the elite who are alone fit to rule is powerfully argued. But Lasch fails to ask himself: why is it a conclusive point against a view that it impedes public debate? Why is debate by the public, or public self- government, the highest good? Is this claim self-evident; if not, what is its foundation?
To echo Lasch, the failure to address this question has serious consequences. He asserts: "Luxury is morally repugnant, and its incompatibility with democratic ideals, moreover, has been consistently recognized in the traditions that shape our political culture. The difficulty of limiting the influence of wealth suggests that wealth itself needs to be limited" (p. 22). Thus, Lasch supports extensive government interference in the market because he fears the effects of wealth on democracy. But why democracy? Unless he can answer, his argument hangs in the air.