ONE NATION, TWO CULTURES by Gertrude Himmelfarb


A Searching Examination of American Society in the Aftermath of Our Cultural Revolution
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This is what happens when a scholar becomes a culture warrior. Himmelfarb (The De-Moralization of Society, 1995, etc.) submits that mainstream American culture has been morally corrupted by libertine elites but that a repository of virtue still exists in a dissident culture rooted generally in religion and political conservatism. Only readers awakening from a 20-year coma will find this basic theme unfamiliar, but the historical and social acuity of Himmelfarb’s analysis is nevertheless impressive. Her problem is that a sharp polemic requires heavy-handed obfuscation, and an intellectual treatise subtle distinctions; caught between a rock and a squishy place, she waffles and consequently delivers neither. Unlike most culture warriors, her priority is examining social phenomena rather than constructing oversimplifications for the purpose of demonizing political opponents. Even in the final chapter, where she addresses the “ethics gap” between and the polarization of the mainstream and dissident cultures, Himmelfarb notes that they “are not utterly separate and disparate” and that they still “remain firmly fixed within —one nation.’ “ This moderating language reflects an optimism built on her Burkean faith in the law as a vehicle for reinforcing moral values. Wayward Americans need not be purged, Himmelfarb graciously allows, because wise public policy can redeem them. Yet there is also an enormous moral rigidity here. In discussing the role of civil society as a moralizing force, for example, she attacks the promotion of educational ideologies that are “antithetical to the kind of moral character that civil society is meant to encourage.” The tone of this comment is striking: For Himmelfarb the great questions of moral philosophy have been settled, the content of morality is clear and fixed, and her role is simply to observe society and be appalled. Himmelfarb flirts with both sides of the distinction between sincerity and smugness.

Pub Date: Nov. 23rd, 1999
ISBN: 0-375-40455-4
Page count: 192pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 2000


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