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The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt.

            Pantheon, 419 pages, $28.95.


Together: The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation by Richard Sennett. Yale University

            Press, 324 pages, $28.



The last three decades have been bitter medicine for the left. In the late 1970s, the achievements of the New Deal seemed secure, embraced even by Richard Nixon, the most conservative president since Herbert Hoover. Labor unions were an accepted feature of economic and political life. In the wake of Medicare and Medicaid, inaugurated in the 1960s, the path to universal health care seemed open. Nixon himself had created the Environmental Protection Agency, an important victory for the cause of governmental regulation. Jimmy Carter acknowledged that the corporate-loophole-ridden tax code was a "disgrace" and promised to make human rights the "soul" of American foreign policy. Despite much unhappiness over busing and Roe v. Wade, the feminist and civil-rights movements appeared triumphant.

Thirty-something years later ... well, there's no need to call the dreary roll of reverses. In policy and opinion, the country's political center of gravity has shifted far to the right. How has it happened?

Jonathan Haidt's fascinating, important, and exasperating new book offers one set of answers. A social psychologist at the University of Virginia and a professed liberal Democrat, Haidt was dismayed by liberalism's eclipse. Seeking to understand it, he proposes a new, or at any rate newly formulated, theory of our moral and political judgments, called Moral Foundations Theory.

As we all know and often forget, humans are not purely rational. Or, to put it another way, there's more to rationality than is dreamed of in our everyday philosophies. We have a long, complex evolutionary history, which has left us with a tangled, multilayered psyche and many more motives than we are usually conscious of. With the help of research by a couple of generations of psychologists, anthropologists, and behavioral economists, Haidt has excavated these psychic structures. But before entering on a detailed description, Haidt pauses to emphasize the First Principle of any adequate moral psychology: "Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second."

Experiments repeatedly show that - to oversimplify only a little - we all believe what we want, regardless of reasons. This certainly tallies with my, and many other liberals', experience of political debate. Changing one's views in response to an opponent's arguments is about as rare as an honest Congressman. (Cases of both are known, but only a few.) Arguments are largely instrumental; they are meant for attack or defense. Most of the time, we argue like lawyers rather than philosophers.  Hume was right: "Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them."

Where, then, do our moral judgments come from? According to Moral Foundations Theory, morality begins as a set of evolution-derived intuitions, which each child then learns to apply within his or her culture. Haidt suggests six dimensions or categories or foundations, into which nearly all our intuitions fall: 1) Help those in need and minimize suffering everywhere (the Care/Harm foundation); 2) Reward people according to what they contribute (Fairness/Cheating); 3) Advance the fortunes of your group (Loyalty/Betrayal); 4) Defer to legitimate superiors and protect subordinates (Authority/Subversion); 5) Resist domination by illegitimate authority (Liberty/Oppression); 6) Respect your group's totems and taboos (Sanctity/Degradation).

By Haidt's reckoning, liberals focus too narrowly on the first and a special version of the second foundation. Compassion is the supreme liberal virtue, supplemented by egalitarianism, which relies on a view of contributing that emphasizes effort rather than output. Because it is individuals who suffer and need, liberalism is individualistic.

Conservatives, by contrast, have a more balanced moral matrix, resting more equally on the six foundations. The details of that argument rest to a considerable extent on questionnaires and psychology-lab experiments, but Haidt's main conclusion is overwhelmingly plausible: conservatives are less attuned to individual freedom and fulfillment, more sensitive to and concerned about the cohesiveness and stability of groups. They are instinctive Durkheimians, agreeing with the great French sociologist that every society is unified by sacred, unchallengeable beliefs, and that "to free man from all social pressures is to abandon and demoralize him." Even before "social capital" became a social-scientific buzzword, conservatives understood that communities are fragile and require continual shoring up, sometimes at the expense of individual welfare. "If you are trying to change an organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you're asking for trouble. This," Haidt affirms, "is the fundamental blind spot of the left." Where liberals see individuals in need, conservatives see social structures at risk.

"Republicans understand moral psychology; Democrats don't," Haidt announces in italics.


Republicans trigger the full range of intuitions described by Moral Foundations Theory. Like Democrats, they can talk about innocent victims (of harmful Democratic policies) and about fairness (particularly the unfairness of taking tax money from hardworking and prudent people to support cheaters, slackers, and irresponsible fools). But Republicans since Nixon have had a near-monopoly on appeals to loyalty (particularly patriotism and the military virtues) and authority (including respect for parents, teachers, elders, and the police, as well as for traditions). And after they embraced Christian conservatives during Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign and became the party of "family values," Republicans inherited a powerful network of Christian ideas about sanctity and sexuality that allowed them to portray Democrats as the party of Sodom and Gomorrah. Set against the rising crime and chaos of the 1960s and 1970s, this five-foundation morality [he hadn't yet gotten around to introducing the sixth one - GS] had wide appeal, even to many Democrats.



Some of this has been said before (eg, by George Lakoff), though not so systematically or with so large a background of experimental data and evolutionary theory. What should we make of it? What is true and valuable, in the first place, is the reminder that every utterance is the tip of an iceberg, merely the surface layer of a deep linguistic (Wittgenstein) or psychic (Freud) substrate. To understand someone, even for conversational purposes - much less persuade him or her - takes a lot of patient, skillful work. Of course every non-autistic adult recognizes this to some degree; but most of us, most of the time, to an inadequate degree.

So, for example, an opinion about immigration or the Affordable Care Act may have little to do with that issue or that law and much more to do with the speaker's feeling about his/her interlocutor, or about which group or tribe the opinion associates one with. In that case, facts and reasoning about policy will only get the discussants so far. They must either go deeper, baring their fundamental commitments and identifications to each other, or else save their breath.

How, then, do minds ever change? They rarely do, it appears. "Whether you end up on the right or the left of the political spectrum turns out to be just as heritable as most other traits: genetics explains between a third and a half of the variability among people on their political attitudes. Being raised in a liberal or conservative household accounts for much less." Presumably political campaigns, discussions with friends and co-workers, television programs, books and articles, and even one's education, account for still less.

Are society-wide misunderstanding and mistrust inevitable? Haidt's practical recommendations for avoiding them are not robust. "I believe that psychologists must work with political scientists to identify changes that will undermine Manichaeism." That should at least attract some foundation funding for psychologists and political scientists. Beyond that, he can only suggest that perhaps if Congressional families all lived in Washington DC and their children played sports together, Congressional Republicans and Democrats might be less polarized.

For secular rationalists (i.e., most politically active liberals and leftists), all this is discouraging. But we get no sympathy from Haidt, who scourges the "rationalist delusion": the idea that "reasoning is our most noble attribute," which usually goes along with "a claim that the rational caste (philosophers or scientists) should have more power" as well as "a utopian program for raising more rational children." We had better reconcile ourselves to religion, Haidt advises - he deplores the New Atheism - and if possible, even join one. Lack of belief is no problem: "it is religious belongingness that matters for [social capital]," he approvingly quotes from a scholarly study, "not religious believing."

Truth or falsity is beside the point for Haidt; the social benefits of religion are too great to allow for quibbling on that score. Religions "help groups to cohere, solve free rider problems, and win the competition for group-level survival"; and they make individuals "less selfish and more loving." Gods and religions are "tools that let people bind themselves together," or in the language of evolutionary psychology, "group-level adaptations for producing cohesiveness and trust." The data strongly suggest, Haidt claims, that religious people are happier, more generous, more productive, and better behaved than the non-religious.

At the very least, unbelievers should keep their skepticism to themselves. "Asking people to give up all forms of sacralized belonging and live in a world of purely 'rational' beliefs might be like asking people to give up the Earth and live in colonies orbiting the moon. It can be done, but it would take a great deal of careful engineering, and even after ten generations, the descendants of those colonists might find themselves with inchoate longings for gravity and greenery." Like the serpent in Eden, reason promises a brave new world but can only bring homelessness and exile.


The Righteous Mind is an easy book for a defensive liberal rationalist to ridicule. Haidt clearly knows a thing or two about moral psychology and political rhetoric, but apparently very little about current affairs or political economy. For one thing, the recent political polarization he laments is of a peculiar sort: there is only one pole. Since the Republican capture of Congress in 1994, and even before, the Republican side has been characterized by relentless, take-no-prisoners partisanship; the Democratic side by disunity, vacillation, surrender. This is the fundamental fact of recent American political history, and Haidt shows no awareness of it.

For another thing, though some of their electoral success may well result from the fact that "Republicans understand moral psychology; Democrats don't," it's also true - a regrettably partisan point, but it must be made - that Republicans cheat a lot. The Nixon campaign attempted to forestall a peace agreement in October 1968 that might have elected Hubert Humphrey. The Reagan campaign attempted to delay the release of the hostages until Jimmy Carter had left office. A Republican Supreme Court awarded the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000. The Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry in 2004, financed by Republican donors, was based on lies, while the CBS "60 Minutes" report alleging George Bush's evasion of National Guard duty was substantially true, despite a firestorm of successful Republican denial. Lee Atwater's and Karl Rove's dirty tricks are too numerous to catalogue. Currently Republicans across the country are busy with voter-suppression efforts, under the deceitful pretense of combating vote fraud. No doubt the Democrats are hardly political innocents; but compared with the Republicans, they are hapless pikers. Yet oddly, the Republicans' godly supporters do not object to this ungodly behavior.

There are also deeper, less obvious objections to Haidt's critique of liberal hyper-rationalism. Minds sometimes change; the voice of reason, though small and quiet, as Freud pointed out, does eventually get a hearing. Mightn't it be fruitful to ask how this can happen rather than assuming, as Haidt does, that it hardly ever will? Mightn't there be some material conditions in which rationality is not invincibly more difficult than unthinking allegiance, and in which cooperative inquiry seems as natural as strategic reasoning?

Strategic reasoning is, as Haidt emphasizes, a mechanism of inter-group competition; and competition is premised on insecurity. Universal radical insecurity - the inevitable and intended result of "flexible labor markets" and "minimal government" - is not conducive to imaginative receptivity or disinterested reflection. Veblen famously observed that it is all but impossible to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. The same goes for his tax breaks, regulatory exemptions, government contracts, and other matters on which a man's survival, or his accustomed lifestyle, may depend. When the middle class is shrinking and one person in four or five is below, at, or not far from poverty level, most people will hunker down, not open up. Some degree of competition, insecurity, and inequality will probably always be necessary. But the price of our present degree of those things is a lessened ability to reason together about difficult matters.

Another, equally pervasive condition of contemporary life also handicaps collective rationality. Tellingly, nearly all the data Haidt refers to seems to be derived from brief interactions: lab experiments, interviews, questionnaires. There is rarely any occasion for prolonged reflection and relaxed discursiveness in these circumstances, any more than there is on radio and TV talk shows, where the average response is only seconds long and thoughtful pauses are disparaged by the producers as "dead air." Newspaper opinion pieces rarely exceed 700 words. Naturally readers and listeners fall back on preset attitudes and received opinions.

Moreover, we are all increasingly hyperstimulated. The sheer volume of commercial messages, entertainment, and social media makes some inner compensation necessary, so we double down on our inner stabilizers, otherwise known as prejudices. Deep experiences of any kind - grappling with art or philosophy, having one's mind changed about politics, or simply possessing one's soul - require a modicum of silence, slowness, and solitude. For most Americans, that modicum is vanishing.


Liberals (or anyone) challenged by Haidt's pessimism about social rationality will want to look into a new book by the maverick sociologist and cultural historian Richard Sennett. Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation is less ambitious than The Righteous Mind, but also less breezily in-the-reader's-face and more elegantly written. Throughout his career Sennett has chosen ample subjects - craftsmanship, respect, public space, built environments - and addressed them essayistically, with a varying mix of field work, social theory, literary/historical erudition, and idiosyncratic reflection. Together is part of a trilogy on "the skills of everyday experience," this volume on "responsiveness to others, such as listening skills in conversation, and [collaboration] at work and in the community."

Sennett is a non-doctrinaire left-liberal, not much interested in electoral politics or ideology. But he has a keen eye and ear for the textures and timbres of contemporary life and a historically informed sense of how they came to be that way. In Together, he traces the forms of working-class sociality from the 19th century to the present, including labor parties, workshops, settlement houses, and the Catholic Worker movement. At the center of labor history is the problem of what Haidt called "group cohesiveness": viz, what experiences, demands, or relationships might turn a class into a community? Sympathetically but critically, Sennett canvasses the attempts by Robert Owen, the German Social Democrats, Jane Addams, Dorothy Day, Saul Alinsky, and others to answer that question.

Nowadays the achievement of working-class community seems to him even less possible than formerly. "The new forms of capitalism emphasize short-term labor and institutional fragmentation; the effect of this economic system has been that workers cannot sustain supportive relations with one another." Activists who would base protest and resistance on group values, as Haidt counsels, are stymied, Sennett points out, by the difficulty of "strengthening communities whose economic heart is weak." Community, like rationality, has its material prerequisites, which are currently being eroded on a large scale.


For secular liberals, the message of these two books, especially Haidt's, is a sobering one: achieving large-scale trust, comity, and mutual aid is hard, very hard. Though it has sometimes been done in the past, secular liberals are barred from using the old methods. We want bonds, we want limits, we want authority; but we don't want illusions. The will of God, the infallibility of Scripture, and the divine right of husbands and fathers seem to us illusions. Even "my country right or wrong" is an illusion if it means, as it frequently does in the mouths of false patriots, "my country can do no wrong." We can't accept these illusions, and we can't ask others to accept them - even if it will make them better behaved - though of course we must live with, and compromise with, people who think otherwise.

 But we also owe it to conservatives - and to ourselves - to devise ways of promoting stability and solidarity that don't rely on illusions. Here liberals have indeed failed, though the three centuries since the Enlightenment are hardly a great deal of time in which to resolve the immemorial tensions between reason and instinct or individual and group. Perhaps the best we can do for now is to point out, patiently, persistently, and with as much love for our equally stubborn fellow citizens as we can muster, that some social arrangements make it harder to hear one another.




George Scialabba is associate editor of The  Baffler and the author of What Are Intellectuals Good For? and The Modern Predicament.


Charisma: The Gift of Grace, and How It Has Been Taken Away from Us by Philip Rieff. Pantheon, 271 pp., $26.95.

"Isn't it curious," my theology teacher used to say with a sly smile, "that beyond good and evil is always ... evil?" This is traditionally the last resort, the trump card, of the orthodox: there is no honor among unbelievers, or at least no security for their honor. Why should someone who doesn't love God, or at least fear His judgment, be moral? In God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens recalls a debate between the philosopher A.J. Ayer and an Anglican bishop about the existence of God. Apparently out of arguments, the bishop exclaimed: "But if you really believe all that, why don't you immediately go out and commit every sort of depraved act?" It hadn't occurred to His Grace that a skeptic, even a skeptical Oxford philosopher, could be anything but wicked.

Contemporary social science has pretty well established that believers and unbelievers commit every sort of depraved act in roughly equal proportions. Nevertheless, the assumption that one cannot be reliably good without God persists in the United States, explicitly or implicitly, to the extent that a declared unbeliever almost certainly cannot be elected to national office. Around half the population identify themselves as born-again Christians and believe in angels, miracles, the inerrancy of the Bible, and the special creation of the Earth within the last ten thousand years. So if (as everyone seems to agree) America is in decline morally, an excess of skeptical rationalism is probably not to blame. Still, the modern world is undeniably more secular than the premodern one, especially among the educated, and that fact must surely have large psychological, if not behavioral, consequences. What have been, and will be, the effects of the Enlightenment on the individual and collective moral psychology of the West?

For five decades, until his death in July 2006, Philip Rieff pondered that question intently, learnedly, and eccentrically. Though Rieff was a sociology professor, he was not a social scientist; he was a social theorist in the line of Durkheim and Weber, an erudite synthesist. All three were social psychologists of religion, but Rieff was a social psychologist of irreligion as well. Equally important, he had an analytical resource they did not: Freudian psychoanalysis.

Rieff's first book (his best, in my opinion) was a penetrating and imaginative study, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959). At the time, most people considered Freud an immoralist - a proponent of liberation. Morality was supposedly what made us ill, posing unreasonable demands on behalf of "civilization" and forcing our healthy instinctual passions underground, into the unconscious, from which they tried to escape by way of "symptoms." These symptoms were strangled protests against the tyranny of culture over nature. The psychoanalytic cure was a protracted guerrilla campaign, aiming to take over one inner stronghold (technically, "resistance") after another without provoking an all-out counterattack in the form of a nervous breakdown.

Freudian therapy was an indifferent success, but Freudian theory was enormously influential. The lesson most people took from it was a strong suspicion of moral authority and a reluctance to exercise it over young children. Inhibition, repression, and conformity were assumed to be unhealthy; spontaneity, individualism, and self-expression to be healthy. The prestige of "order" plummeted; that of "freedom" soared.

The Mind of the Moralist was a vigorous dissent from this standard interpretation. Rieff's point was not just that, unlike his noisier disciples, Freud was temperamentally conservative, rating order as highly as freedom and restraint as highly as expression. This stance could be (and regularly was) dismissed as reflexive Victorian/Viennese caution. On the contrary, Rieff argued, Freud's caution was well-founded. He understood that he had not really explained away our primal, nameless sense of guilt, which lay beneath the more superficial and intelligible constraints imposed by culture, with the implausible hypothesis of a primal crime. And yet, for this resolute unbeliever, such guilt could have no rational basis - who, after all, was humankind accountable to?

Rieff's explanation of what there is to be guilty about was repeated in many books over many years, with increasing urgency (and, it must be said, portentousness). Human possibilities are limitless; about this he seemed to agree with Freud's liberationist successors. But what excited them terrified him - and, he claimed, everyone else, at least before the triumph of the therapeutic ethos. Our primal endowment - formless, destructive, uncontrollable instinct - paralyzes and isolates us. We cannot trust ourselves or one another until a firm structure of interdictions has been installed in everyone's psyche. These must be expounded by an interpretive elite, ratified through a calendar of rituals, and enforced by stern authority. Every culture is a dialectic of prohibition and permission, renunciation and release. Freud would have agreed; but whereas his followers concluded that the original "yes" of instinct was silenced, or at least muted, by the "no" of repressive authority, Rieff countered that instinct was cacophonous and only the original, creative "no" gave it a distinct voice. As he put it in The Mind of the Moralist - his style, already a little melodramatic, foreshadowing his later, full-blown apocalyptic abstractions - the primal self is "in a panic to express the fecundity of its own emptiness" and must be mastered by "unalterable authority." For if "everything could be expressed by everyone identically," then "nothing would remain to be expressed individually." Hence the "irreducible and supreme activity of culture" is to "prevent the expression of everything," thereby precluding "the one truly egalitarian dominion: nothingness."

For most educated (even many uneducated) Westerners, however, all formerly unalterable authorities now lie in the dust, like Ozymandias. Science has banished the supernatural, technology has vanquished scarcity, and so, having lost its parents, ignorance and misery, morality is now an orphan. This is the triumphalist view of modernity, and Rieff shared it; only instead of a triumph, he thought it a catastrophe. The dimensions of this catastrophe dawned on him gradually. The last chapter of Freud is "The Emergence of Psychological Man," a tentative sketch of what modernity had wrought. Until the twentieth century, in Rieff's account, three character types had successively prevailed in Western culture: political man, the ideal of classical times, dedicated to the glory of his city; religious man, the ideal of the Christian era, dedicated to the glory of God; and a transitional figure, economic man, a creature of Enlightenment liberalism. Economic man believed in doing good unto others by doing well for himself. This convenient compromise did not last long, and what survived of it was not the altruism but the egoism. Psychological man was frankly and shrewdly selfish, beyond ideals and illusions, a charming narcissist at best, at worst boorish or hypochondriacal, according to his temperament.

But the worst thing about psychological man was his children. Raised without repressions, they were incapable of renunciation and regarded all authority as illegitimate. Rieff's second book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966), raised the alarm about their "devastating illusions of individuality and freedom." A society without hierarchy, whose members "cannot conceive any salvation other than amplitude in living itself," must end in moral squalor, chaos, anomie, and universal boredom. Nor will it help to "disguise their rancorous worship of self in the religion of art," for art too depends on renunciation. Here Rieff quotes Nietzsche at length (in what is for me the most illuminating passage in Rieff's entire corpus):

"Every system of morals is a sort of tyranny against "nature" and also against "reason"; that is, however, no objection, unless one should decree, by some other system of morals, that all kinds of tyranny and unreasonableness are unlawful. What is essential and invaluable in every system of morals is that it is a long constraint. ... The singular fact remains that everything of the nature of freedom, elegance, boldness, dance, and masterly certainty, which exists or has ever existed, whether in thought or administration, in art or in conduct, has only developed by means of the tyranny of such arbitrary law; and in all seriousness, it is not at all improbable that precisely this is "nature" and "natural" and not laisser-aller! ... The essential thing is apparently (to repeat it once more) that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there results thereby, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living." (Beyond Good and Evil, #188)

Muscular strength is built gradually, for example by overcoming the resistance of progressively heavier weights. Moral and psychological strength also require resistance - the pressure of cultural interdicts, dictating what is not to be done or even thought of. Such discipline simplifies our lives and economizes our energies. Without an unquestioned moral demand system, based on guilt, fear, and faith and generating obedience, trust, and dependence, there can be no spiritual hygiene, no communal purpose. And that is what the triumph of the therapeutic ethos makes impossible. Nowadays "the religious psychologies of release and the social technologies of affluence do not go beyond release and affluence to a fresh imposition of restrictive demands. This describes, in a sentence, the cultural revolution of our time. The old culture of denial has become irrelevant to a world of infinite abundance and reality." In the absence of strict, even harsh, limits (to use a plain word Rieff himself, puzzlingly, so seldom used that one is led to wonder whether his elaborately artificial prose style was itself meant as a discipline), we cannot thrive.

While Rieff was writing The Triumph of the Therapeutic in the early 1960s, the New Left and the counterculture were still gathering force. When the storm broke in the mid- and late sixties, he was aghast. In 1971 he gave an interview to the editors of Salmagundi. When they asked him to edit the transcript for publication, he responded with a book-length open letter, Fellow Teachers (1973), denouncing students and teachers alike, the former for their ignorant impatience of all discipline and sacred authority, the latter for their irresponsible acquiescence.

"Students can bring us no hope at all until the protest style, as Love of Humanity and Power to the People, is seen through. With the vision of this horror, we will see in true light the craven aping and interminable apologies for the transgressive types at the bottom: the perverts, the underclass, all those who can do no wrong because they have been wronged. ... I repeat what I have said often: immediately behind the hippies are the thugs. They occupy the remissive space opened up by the hippies, deepening it from an aesthetic into a politics. The self-absorbed therapy of the hippies clears the way for the mass-murder therapy of the thugs."

He could not refrain from the ultimate epithet: "Released from sacred fear by our remissive teaching elites, transgressives carry their peculiar authority with more right and less shame than ever before in the history of our misery. Hence Hitler and Holocaust (sic). ... Gulag and Dachau, torture and terror, are the dry-eyed children of our enlightenments."

Despairing, Rieff fell silent until his death thirty-three years later. (One of his students, Jonathan Imber, published The Feeling Intellect, a valuable collection of Rieff's occasional writings, in 1990.) He did not, however, cease working. He left behind a mass of manuscripts, which several former students were helping him ready for publication. Charisma is one of them. Another, My Life Among the Deathworks, the first volume of a projected trilogy, Sacred Order, Social Order appeared last year.

Charisma is not Rieff at his best. The proofreading is slapdash; he would have been mortified by the quantity of faulty punctuation remaining. But he is also at fault: the book is repetitive, dense with jargon, impatient of exposition, and more than occasionally intemperate. In form, it is an extended quarrel with Max Weber's sociology of religion, which relies on the concept of charisma but, according to Rieff, radically misunderstands it. Weber conceived charisma as one of three kinds of authority - traditional, charismatic, and bureaucratic - that characterize all organizations, including religious ones. Traditional authority, typical of primitive societies, derives from inertia and aims at continuity. Bureaucratic authority, typical of modern societies, derives from methodical reasoning and aims at efficiency. Charismatic authority is untypical and unpredictable; it derives from a singularly compelling, dynamic figure, seemingly gifted by God, and aims at radical reform or innovation. The charismatic figure arises when a tradition or bureaucracy stagnates, and his legacy is inevitably regularized by his uncharismatic successors. Since Weber, the term has been drastically vulgarized and is now mostly employed by journalists or publicists to puff politicians and pop-culture personalities.

Rieff deplores this progressive secularization of charisma and insists on its fundamentally religious significance. "My position is ... no charisma without creed." For Rieff, a creed is not primarily theological but moral: a "particular order of interdicts and remissions." Genuine charisma is not transgressive; it does not abolish limits or license lawlessness. Rather, it imposes new interdicts, a "new organization of avoidances and of salvations through avoidances." Charismatics satisfy "the need for love in its prototypical form, as a craving for authority, reorganizing its expression within a fresh content of ambivalences." As he writes, in one of all too many suggestive but obscure passages:

"The suffering that is the predicate for a charismatic situation is therefore not material suffering as such, but the deprivation of that authority that is inseparable from the love relation. The revolutionary authority of the charismatic is not a cure when viewed from the perspective of a therapeutically sophisticated culture, but rather, another symptom of the prototypal series with the resistances reorganized to express yet different repressions."

Besides Weber, Rieff engages with the Old Testament prophets, Saint Paul, and Kierkegaard. His exegeses are ingenious and original, and they all yield the same conclusion: religion is prohibition, culture is inhibition, authority is salvation, submission is wisdom, transgression is folly, and criticism of anything but the pretensions of critical reason is impiety. Modern American society has so completely forgotten these lessons that one is constantly expecting to hear Rieff exclaim, like Heidegger, "Only a God can save us."


In all his books - indeed, on virtually every page - Rieff propounded a single thesis: the urgent necessity of a "sacred order," promulgated by a "creedal organization," consisting of "interdicts and remissions," admitting of no appeal and no criticism - except, if it should decay, from prophets who either purify and reaffirm the old interdictory order or establish a new one. Without this, he warned continually, no greatness of soul, no lasting happiness, no common life is possible.

And yet Rieff never - not once - suggested what the basis of a plausible sacred order might be. The old faiths, he acknowledged, have lost their hold on Western elites; but he offered no hint, scarcely even any hope, of a new one. It is as though a prophet came among the people, foretold a terrible future, and admonished: "You must believe and obey, or you are lost." And when the people cried out in earnest: "We cannot abide that future; tell us, then, what to believe and whom to obey," he replied: "It matters not what or whom; only believe and obey."

Prescribing religion in its generic form has become commonplace among social critics, particularly communitarians. They have a point. No society - for that matter, no individual - can flourish without a great deal of trust, devotion, solidarity, and self-discipline. Religion often fosters these things, and not only among co-religionists. But although untrammeled sexual freedom is not a requirement of human flourishing, any more than the untrammeled freedom to accumulate money, untrammeled intellectual freedom most certainly is. Unquestioned authority is not merely undesirable, it is impossible, a contradiction in terms. Authority is what remains after all questions have been asked, all objections posed, all doubts explored. Until then, there is only superstition or cowed silence. Religious orthodoxy, and in particular the theistic hypothesis, has had many centuries to establish its intellectual authority. Its prospects are dwindling. If trust, devotion, and the other requisites of community depend on a general belief in supernatural agencies, then the triumph of the therapeutic is probably permanent.

Well, then, can we be good without God? Certainly some people can. Marcus Aurelius, David Hume, George Eliot, John Stuart Mill, and William James - undoubtedly (all right, it's just my opinion) the five most perfect human beings - were not theists. But of course, the existence of exceptions has never been at issue. The question is about the rest of us, run-of-the-mill humanity. What can motivate ordinary men and women to behave decently most of the time and heroically in emergencies?

Perhaps it might help to reduce the many temptations to behave otherwise. Chief among these in twenty-first-century America are the relentless sexualization of advertising and entertainment, the pervasive economic insecurity engineered by business and government (especially Republican) policies, and the enfeeblement of civic life entailed by extreme laissez-faire ideology. These things make it harder to maintain dignity or restraint and to trust or care about other people. None of them are necessary consequences of skepticism or intellectual freedom, and some of them are promoted most vigorously by people who loudly proclaim themselves religious. Only the first has provoked any organized religious opposition, however, and even then has generated only a fraction of the energy and resources wasted on opposing sex education and the teaching of evolution - not to mention the anti-abortion movement, which would surely prevent more abortions by helping to lower the sexual temperature of consumer marketing than by proselytizing unwed mothers and harassing their physicians.

Just as important as avoiding temptation is acquiring the strength to subdue it. Ordinary people must become heroes, and we can. The deepest determinant of contemporary social psychology is not mass unbelief but mass production. Industrialism has decisively undermined the republican ideals of independence, self-sufficiency, and proprietorship - the "modest competence" postulated by early democratic theorists as the basis of civic virtue and civil equality. It is the practice of demanding skills, rather than fragmented and routinized drudgery, that disciplines us and makes mutual respect and sympathy possible. Work that provides scope for the exercise of virtues and talents; a physical, social, and political environment commensurate in scale with our authentic, non-manufactured needs and appetites; and a much greater degree of equality, with fewer status distinctions, and those resting on inner qualities rather than money - these are the requirements of psychic health at present. The alternative is infantilism and authoritarianism, compensated - at least until the earth's ecology breaks down - by frantic consumption.

Tracing a society's predicament to its historical and political roots is more difficult than endlessly excoriating or mocking its most outlandish manifestations. It is also more rewarding. That is why, after readingFreud: The Mind of the Moralistand perhaps also The Triumph of the Therapeutic, those in sympathy with Rieff's complaint should turn to the writings of Christopher Lasch. In a series of invaluable books, notably The Minimal Self (1984), The True and Only Heaven (1991), and The Revolt of the Elites (1995), Lasch diagnosed contemporary narcissism far more rigorously and persuasively than Rieff. It is the worker's loss of autonomy, Lasch showed, that has produced a culture of unlimited consumption and ersatz self-expression; and it is the disappearance of the household economy, which removed the father's work life from the child's experience, that has produced the characteristic modern ambivalence about authority, which Rieff can only blame on rationalist hubris and original sin. This exceptional historical insight, along with his robust, unflagging concern with democracy and equality, set Lasch, morally as well as intellectually, above all other recent critics of modernity.

Lasch has also, it happens, written the best essay I have encountered about Rieff, a chapter in The Revolt of the Elites. After much agreement and praise, he gently rebuked Rieff for falling into a practice the older man had himself rightly criticized: i.e., recommending religion for purely instrumental reasons. "The issue," Lasch reminded Rieff, "is not whether religion is necessary but whether it is true." For that reason, "an honest atheist is always to be preferred to a culture Christian." Notwithstanding Rieff's uncompromising anathemas, honest believers and honest unbelievers will need one another if contemporary American society is to be redeemed.


George Scialabba ( is a book critic and the author of Divided Mind (Arrowsmith Press).


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