The Magazine


Apr 14, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 30 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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Science might seem to be an aid to choice, and of course it was originally intended to be: the more science, the more control, the more choice. But, looking at the political consequences, Lasch sees that science, or the various sciences of rational control, have subtracted from human choice because they have systematically removed the power of decision from ordinary people with common sense and given it to experts with the prestige of science. Thus, the "dead hand of the educator," for example, takes over the unsupervised play of children after school, transforming it into " extracurricular activities" that fit into a "learning experience." The use of jargon is a sign of usurpation of the citizen by a technician.

Feminism promotes this change without realizing it. Its central policy is on abortion and is called "pro-choice," for the right of abortion frees a woman from the tyranny of nature that has unfairly left her in sole possession of the human fetus. But when it comes to the choice, does she make it by herself? No, the pro-choice position is that abortion should be a matter between a woman and her doctor. The doctor, stating the medical options, replaces her husband or her mother, who might give moral advice.

Lasch argues that feminism culminates the trend of modern democracy toward greater choice in principle and less choice in practice. Feminism revolted against the confinement of women to the home, but that condition was very new, the result of the middle class's moving to the suburbs. Lasch points out that Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique, which began current American feminism in 1963, is not about the age-old oppression of patriarchy but a very specific complaint about women's life in the suburbs. Actually, women went to the suburbs by choice, says Lasch, to free themselves from the impositions of city life, where there are always other people around you. What drew people to the suburbs was the dream of perfect freedom in which you could see whom you liked when you liked. Suburbs excluded "everything not subject to choice -- the job, the [extended] family, the enforced sociability of the city streets."

When women got to the suburbs, however, they found that the extra choice they had sought left them alone in the home with too little to do. The feminist revolt was a necessary response, but it made matters worse. The problem was the strict separation between home and work, but when the feminists tried to solve it, they maintained the separation and simply insisted on having the same work as men. They needed a calling but they went for careers. They rejected the notion of volunteer work that would allow them to be outside the home without being inside an office, and they joined the competition to become a boss by submitting themselves to working for a boss. So much for women's liberation!

Lasch is not yet finished with his wonderful analysis. He shows that the feminist understanding of rational control is practically Orwellian. One would think that when a woman takes more control of her life, and lives more by her own choice, there would be a standard by which to measure her gain and society's improvement. But for the feminists, Lasch explains, a woman's choice is not secure and her control of her life is imperfect if she tries to live up to standards set by someone else. She is only in control if she lives for her own self-esteem rather than for an ideal of perfection she may well fall short of. If you make no demands on yourself, you will find yourself easy to please. This is hardly what is meant by taking control of your own life.

In the end, our society is democratic despite the experts. The experts do not control us, but they corrupt us. They deliver us to a "culture of narcissism," the title of Lasch's famous 1979 book, and they serve us with various kinds of therapy designed to keep us content with ourselves.

Lasch seems to doubt that we will remain content with the democratic self- esteem of which feminism is only the latest type. "Science enhanced human control over nature," he says, "but it left human beings more fearful than ever of what could not be controlled." That will be the cause of our discontent. What will be the remedy? Lasch says some pages later:

"Submission to God makes people less submissive in everyday life. It makes them less fearful but also less bitter and resentful, less inclined to make excuses for themselves." Less inclined to make excuses: What a man Christopher Lasch was.

Harvey Mansfield, professor of government at Harvard University, is working on a study of manliness.