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Christopher Lasch: A Maddening Physician for Our Times

December 29, 2016

I’m reading Christopher Lasch’s 1995 essay collection, The Revolt of the The Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. I’ve read Lasch in bits and pieces before, but never an entire book straight through. This first sustained encounter has been, in short, maddening.

I appreciate large chunks of Lasch’s diagnoses of various social, cultural, political, and intellectual problems. Most of his take on the complications of elitism, internationalism, democracy is still relevant today. This is especially so given that our polarized politics have recently served as extensions of cultural and social issues from the 1990s—underscored by the familiar name of Clinton as a presidential candidate.

When it comes to prescriptions for treatment, however, Lasch loses his way. Take for instance his appreciation for what he calls “populism,” delivered in the context of his 1992 essay, “Communitarianism or Populism? The Ethic of Compassion and the Ethic of Respect.”

Lasch’s populism rejects sentimentality, misplaced compassion (which creates anti-democratic double standards), deference, pity, social rank, the welfare state, and any assumption that poverty implies innocence. As the “authentic voice of democracy,” populism embraces responsibility, common sense, plain manners, trust, straightforward speech, and judgment.

One might be tempted to assert that Lasch is merely being descriptive and observational with regard to populism, except that he makes no attempt to note the inconsistencies and weaknesses in either what populism rejects or embraces.

Lasch desires a smaller-scale society that treats individuals as persons rather than as a part of an abstract mass or grouping. But he ignores how populism itself abstracts groups and depersonalizes. He ignores how common sense is sometimes constructed, and how populism is itself often wrapped in the reactionary distrust of others.

In sum, I’m at once entranced by Lasch’s ability to diagnose the complexities and injustices of our so-called enlightened structures, and dismayed at his inability to see the potential complexities and injustices embedded in his prescriptions. – TL

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