AMERICA'S QUEST FOR THE IDEAL SELF: Dissent and Fulfillment in the 60s and 70s by Peter Clecak

AMERICA'S QUEST FOR THE IDEAL SELF: Dissent and Fulfillment in the 60s and 70s

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The argument of the book--iterated and reiterated in the same key, jargony phrases--is as follows: ""that the quest for fulfillment constituted the central metaphor of American civilization in the sixties and in the seventies; that this quest embodied and linked personal salvation and a slice of social justice as inextricable aspects of each other; and finally that this quest yielded stunning successes evidenced in the widening and deepening of personhood and in an enlargment of cultural space."" Prof. Clecak (English, U. of Calif., Irvine) wants of course to dispel ""the widening, facile mood of pessimism"" (allegedly the product of ""decadism"" and ""the rhetoric of nostalgia"") by demonstrating that all is not lost: Sixties dissent transformed life in the Seventies through unleashing myriad and diverse ""styles of salvation"" (Christian and evangelical, as well as self-regarding). . . which, even in the Eighties, will not permit a return to the status quo ante. Reagan and his appointees, that is, may be throwbacks to the Eisenhower era--""but the view from the top"" is too different to permit them to reverse course (i.e., some of the disadvantaged may lose benefits, which Clecak decries, but abortion won't be outlawed). This argument has the limited merit of not being entirely wrong: there were demonstrable continuities between the Sixties and Seventies, especially as regards cultural self-definition; and social critics of various persuasions exaggerated both Sixties radicalism and Seventies narcissism. (Such is the nature of social criticism.) Clecak, however, is chiefly concerned with rebutting leftist critics (a gamut of leftist critics) on the dual grounds that self-fulfillment can be socially useful and that economic inequities have, on balance, been reduced. The former is a subjective judgment dependent on individual values (in Clecak's case, a strongly pluralistic outlook); the latter is challenged even by some of his own statistics (and more so by others). The result combines the fortune-cookie optimism of Megatrends with a social-science in-house dispute.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1983
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press