DEBATING THE GOOD SOCIETY by Andrew Bard Schmookler


A Quest to Bridge America's Moral Divide
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The author of Out of Weakness (1988) and several other books about society and power, war and peace, here explores and moderates the major points of long-standing disagreements between pessimistic conservatives and optimistic liberals. The book’s fictional format adds contemporary appeal to this ancient debate, as we hear from a wide variety of people and opinions allegedly interacting in an Internet chat room. Most of the contributors are even more abnormally intelligent than NPR listeners (the author is an NPR host and sounds like one), making their points with quotes from Plato, Blake, Kant, Nietzsche, even Hillary Clinton. Schmookler’s hefty tome is quite engaging, but too dense to read in large increments. Specific instances of the order versus freedom theme arise in law, politics, evolution, cultural expression, and child rearing, the latter allowing Schmookler to make long digressions about his family and to introduce the nature versus nurture controversy. As a father, he wants to avoid the extremes of being a totalitarian control freak or the best-friend daddy of a slacker. We wait to see whether his son, the “Adam” and litmus of all these philosophical debates, will cure himself of his addiction to Nintendo games, or whether the author will have to play God and lay down the law. A teacher deplores youthful rebellion and defends school rules: “If we didn—t get them used to discipline at the outset, just think of how wild they—d be then!” Arguing in favor of letting the young find their way, a cartoon depicts older pigs snorting at the young pigs escaping under their fence—but the sign above them reads “Acme Sausage Company.” The only winner of the debate is the reader, who learns from this valuable book that truths lie in the middle.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-262-19414-7
Page count: 422pp
Publisher: MIT Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1999