June 7, 2022

Christopher Lasch was no conservative, at least not what we traditionally think of as “conservative.”  He was never a Republican and as one writer phrased it, “Lasch’s conservative turn was more (Wendell) Berry than (William) Buckley.”  A lifelong liberal, he authored a number of influential books and was a professor at the University of Rochester.  He died of cancer in 1994 at the age of 62. 

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His contributions to society and culture from such books as the The Culture of Narcissism, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, and The True and Only Heaven have been long lasting and deeply profound, indeed prophetic.  It was in The True and Only Heaven where I was struck again in rereading the book for the first time in a couple of decades just how far reaching and incredibly prophetic Lasch would prove to be.  His discussion of political culture, philosophy, speculations on the nature of “Progress,” revisiting the political labels of “conservative” and “liberal” and his definition of what would be labeled as “Middle America” is simply brilliant.  He was a thinker way ahead of his time. Consider only Lasch’s section on the impact and importance of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision and the issue of abortion.

The huge fault line in American culture has only grown wider in the almost half century since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973.  We certainly see it everywhere, perhaps no more so than in our electoral politics, in the talk of “deplorables,” clingers to guns and religion and the complete disdain for “flyover country” and “Middle Americans.”

We see it in the hollowing out of the rural areas and small towns of America, the jettisoning of factories and millions of manufacturing jobs overseas and the cratering of the working lower and middle class, the fall in wages, lowering life expectancy, and rampant opioid addiction, and the breakdown of the family and community.  This is the America that has been left behind.  And we don’t need to emphasize the discussion of the rural areas of our nation as wide swaths of urban neighborhoods have suffered the same fate.

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One’s views on abortion sits right in the middle of this fault line.  Lasch’s overall theme in The True and Only Heaven lies in the subtitle of his book, “Progress and its Critics.”  The Left has taken “Progress” into its soul and made it the driving force of its ideology.  But what the Left has determined as “Progress” is diametrically opposed in so much of our culture and of what the majority of Americans believe in.  Their vision of “Progress” represents the radical transformation that has been undertaken by the Left for the past half century.

As Lasch wrote:

…liberals have lost sight of what is valuable in lower-middle-class culture in their eagerness to condemn what is objectionable.  Their attack on “Middle America,” which eventually gave rise to a counterattack against liberalism — the main ingredient in the rise of the new right — has blinded them to the positive features of petty-bourgeois culture, its moral realism, its understanding that everything has a price, its respect for limits, its skepticism about progress.  Whatever can be said against them, small proprietors, artisans, tradesmen, and farmers — more often victims of “improvement” than beneficiaries — are likely to mistake the promised land of progress for the true and only heaven.

To our point, Lasch writes, “The debate about abortion illustrates the differences between the enlightened ethic of competitive achievement and the petty-bourgeois or working-class ethic of limits.”

Lasch drew stark contrasts between the belief systems of the two camps, those who believe in unlimited progress and those who believe in limits.  On issue after issue, Lasch makes a distinction between the two Americas, the abortion issue rising perhaps above all the other issues that face us today.

Again Lasch writes, “Conflicting attitudes about the future, much more than abstract speculation about the immortality of the embryonic soul, underlay the controversy about abortion touched off the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade.”  Lasch was able to see the forest for the trees on what has become the most contentious cultural issue of our times.  He was able to look beyond the obvious debates over women’s rights, health, viability, and the moral issues of abortion to see the overall cultural impact.