peculiar scramble for status

In a study on ‘authoritarian personality’ conducted in the late 1940s, the sociologist Adorno and colleagues asked their subjects to react to the the following two statements:

Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn.

Every person should have complete faith in some supernatural power whose decisions he obeys without question.

Their findings included the following nine characteristics associated with the “authoritarian personality” :

rigid adherence to convention;

submission to the authorities of the in-group;

aggression against those who deviated from convention;

opposition to imaginative, subjective or soft-hearted experience;

superstition and rigid belief categories;

obsession with strength and powerful father figures;

generalized hostility and anger at humanity;

the tendency to believe that wild and dangerous things are going on in the world, a projection of repressed emotions;

and an obsession with sex.

A decade later another sociologist Hafstadter linked the pervasive ‘pseudo-conservativism’ in America to life here being hardscrabble, unpredictable, diverse and status obsessed.  In essence, the authoritarian personality is ubiquitous, and derives from instability.  He wrote:

“pseudo-conservatism is in good part a product of the rootlessness and heterogeneity of American life and, above all, of its peculiar scramble for status and its peculiar search for secure identity.”

“Pseudo-Conservatism Revisited – 1965,” Hofstadter

There are dark eventualities implicit in these social realities.  Hafstadter describes one below:  how a minority could manipulate an insecure population such as ours to make a perpetually unstable state.

 “[I]n a populist culture like ours, which seems to lack a responsible elite with political and moral autonomy, and in which it is possible to exploit the wildest currents of public sentiment for private purposes, it is at least conceivable that a highly organized, vocal, active and well-financed minority could create a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.”

“Pseudo-Conservatism Revisited – 1965,” Hofstadter

Is more being said now about the pursuit of well being or as Aristotle called it eudaimonia – thriving – as a reaction against the reductive way of living so well described in these observations made by Hafstadter and Adorno?  One can hope.  Writing on empathy, community, sustainability, and wellbeing provide antidotes to a susceptibility to authoritarian personality and a culture of fear.

[All quotations are taken from Gary Kamiya’s article,  The infantile style in American politics, in Salon]

the preferences of others

This is about a change of course, paradigmatic, in which people move from being directed by inner assuredness to being manipulated by external influence and whim.  Ironically, because one would assume that an outward look would be motivated by selflessness, both are firmly rooted in self love.  The ratios are revealing:  that production is self-reliance and consumption is skittish, and getting worse.

Half a century ago, Yale University Press published the first edition of ”The Lonely Crowd,” by David Riesman with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney. The book’s subject was nothing less than a sea change in American character: as America was moving from a society governed by the imperative of production to a society governed by the imperative of consumption, the character of its upper middle classes was shifting from ”inner-directed” people who as children formed goals that would guide them in later life to ”other-directed” people, ”sensitized to the expectations and preferences of others.” In Riesman’s metaphor, the shift was from life guided by an internal gyroscope to life guided by radar. The new American no longer cared much about adult authority but rather was hyperalert to peer groups and gripped by mass media. Father might know best, but if he did, it was increasingly because a television program said so.

The book went on to become, according to a 1997 study by Herbert J. Gans, the best-selling book by a sociologist in American history, with 1.4 million copies sold, largely in paperback editions. For years, the book made ”inner-direction” and ”other-direction” household terms, canapes for cocktail party chat. It was read by student radicals in the making, who overinterpreted its embrace of the search for autonomy as a roundhouse assault on conformity, when in fact Riesman was at pains to point out that any society ”ensures some degree of conformity from the individuals who make it up,” the question being how it secures that unavoidable conformity. In the 1960’s, ”The Lonely Crowd” was read as a harbinger of alienation leading to affluent revolt. Its title phrase even cropped up in a Bob Dylan song of 1967, ”I Shall Be Released.” By the time of his introduction to the 1969 edition, Riesman was regretting that ” ‘The Lonely Crowd’ contributed to the snobbish deprecation of business careers.”

~BOOKEND / By TODD GITLIN, How Our Crowd Got Lonely