March 18, 2009

Outwards, Looking In: Reading Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd

By: Douglas Robertson

Most people or things that are said to have been enormously famous or influential in their day but now forgotten, turn out either to net a Jesus- or Elvis-worthy tally of Google hits, or never to have been particularly famous or influential to begin with. If any book truly defies the strictures of that much-abused formula, it is surely David Riesman’s Lonely Crowd. Riesman’s book yields a paltry 36 thousand hits whereas Jesus yields 36 million, yet between its original 1950 printing and its 1953 paperback reissue it “sold 1.4 million copies, more than any book of sociology before or since.”1 The then-lion of American literary critics, Lionel Trilling, averred that “The Lonely Crowd seems to me one of the most important books about America to have been published in recent years,”2 and that Riesman was effectively a better novelist than almost anyone officially so styled. As late as 1960, when Kennedy-booster Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. deprecated Richard Nixon as an “other-directed” candidate,3 The Lonely Crowd’s terminology evidently still enjoyed enough prestige to be of political service.

But with the dawning of the short Aquarian sixties (ca. ’64- ca. ’70), The Lonely Crowd sank into a dusty, period-piece near-oblivion from which it has never since reemerged, except occasionally as an item in Homeric catalogues of contemporaneous critiques of fifties “conformism”4 with which it had little or nothing in common. The most probable explanation of the disappearance of Riesman’s chef d’oeuvre is essentially identical to one of the more compelling reasons for reviving an interest in it—namely, countering the overwhelming influence that young sixties counterculturalists have had on our conception of ourselves and our recent development as a people. In virtually ensuring that no book written by a man who had ever worn a gray flannel suit could ever again escape being lumped in with The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, the legacy of the counterculturalists also blinded readers to Riesman’s enduring lesson that the admittedly decisive changes in the American national character supposedly brought about at one go in the sixties had already been underway since at least the early twenties.

I call it a lesson and not a thesis or an assertion, because Riesman naturally could not have known in 1950 what sort of a decade the sixties would turn out to be (let alone subsequently understood to be); hence, quite independently of the worthiness of his description and analysis of the American character up to 1950, The Lonely Crowd carries weight with the reader of 2009 via its bare reportage of sundry pieces of immediately post-World-War II Americana, and their strident contradiction of so many of our common assumptions about the forties and fifties. Did not the young American men who fought in the Second World War collectively comprise “the Greatest Generation”?; was not every man Jack of them a virtual Yankee paladin wholly dedicated to his do-or-die crusade to save not only Europe and Japan but the entire world from the menace of totalitarian fascism? Apparently not; rather they were at best, a passel of phlegmatic of Average Joes who had to be roused from their sleepy political torpor into fighting, and who after the war’s conclusion “bring scarcely a trace of moral righteousness into their political participation [and] ‘ain’t mad at nobody.’”5 In their brief moments of leisure, did not our rationing-famished grandparents jitterbug ever-so-squarely in one unanimous, insectoid mass to the mesmeric strains of Bing, Frank, and Dino alone? To the contrary: A substantial proportion of them were apparently, in virtue of their membership in “a series of [jazz-centered splinter] cults,” and “their very precision and almost fanatical insistence on values untainted by commercialism and showmanship”6 every bit as insufferably factional in their popular-musical allegiances as the shoegazing, vinyl-gourmandizing indie-rock aficionados of the intermillennium. Were not divorce and extramarital sex almost literally unheard of back then? Far from it: Among other unnamed causes, “Wildcatting on the sex-frontier” (I’m not sure what that is, but it sounds extremely naughty) had long since sent the divorce rate through the roof, made confetti of the institution of the family, and set free bands of roving female “nonpecuniary pirates”7 searching for gratifications unavailable to them from their luggishly old-fashioned, customer-service unsavvy husbands.

According to Riesman, all of these to our eyes refreshingly (or appallingly) modern-seeming phenomena were a manifestation of a recent (to him) change in the political, ethical, psychological, aesthetic, and social orientation of the average (or soon to be average) American from one of “inner-direction” to “other-direction”. The inner-directed type gets his full panoply of values directly and entirely from their “parents and other authorities [chiefly printed texts, from the Bible to classic novels to secular hagiographies of great men]” and, impelled by the infrastructural cravings of an ever-burgeoning and ever-more-widely dispersed population, blinkeredly, and essentially in solitude, applies them for the balance of his life to various concrete political, administrative, technical, theoretical, or artistic tasks—abolishing slavery, building railroads, founding Poughkeepsie or Sheboygan, devising a law or two of thermodynamics, writing The Scarlet Letter or The Portrait of a Lady. The inner-directed type’s psychological mechanism may be likened to a “gyroscope […],” which, “once it is set…keeps [him] ‘on course’ even when tradition, when responded to by his character, no longer dictates his moves,”8 and his strongest actuating emotion is guilt.

The other-directed type finds himself rather empty-handed with no cities to found, railroads to build, etc., and is obliged to turn willy-nilly to other people—of whatever stripe, and wherever they may be found—for ethical guidance, approval, and (most shockingly) the plastic stuff of his individual industry. In an other-directed directed (sic) world, graying parents must manipulatively vie with teenagers or even toddlers for pride of place in their children’s worldview; work becomes more a domain for cultivating a sort of personal fan club (“glad-handing,” Riesman calls it) than for actually getting anything done; and leisure time is devoted largely to one-upping9 one’s neighbor on “marginally differentiated” niceties of food-preparation, peeping-Tommish or conspiracy-theoretical political gossip (the stock-in-trade of the other-directed “inside-dopester” as against the inner-directed “moralizer”), and the like. As the other-directed person must “be able to receive signals from far and near,” and the sources of these signals “are many, the changes rapid,” his “control equipment, instead of being like a gyroscope, is like a radar”; and one of his “prime psychological lever[s] is anxiety.”10

A third, and much more ancient type, the tradition-directed one, having little reason to suspect that the future will be much different from the present, is guided principally by the way things have practically speaking always been done, and views his parents—along with the Church, the village blacksmith or wheelwright, etc.—more as conduits of this traditional way than as self-sustaining centers of authority. The most significant attribute of the tradition-directed type, inasmuch as the Mayflower pilgrims were already veritable poster-children of inner-directedness, is its initially marginal and subsequently ever-receding contribution to the American Volksgeist—this for both Riesman’s mid-twentieth-century purposes and my present early twenty-first-century ones.

But what already about these present early twenty-first century purposes of mine? Why, at bottom, do I think it is worthwhile for Joe or Jane Shiraz of 2009—who presumably does not particularly care enough about the American Volksgeist of any period to take much offence at or pleasure in having their prejudices about the 1940s through 1960s ruffled—to read The Lonely Crowd, a book that would now be eligible for retirement if it were a person, a book written by a man who were he alive come September would then be celebrating his hundredth birthday? The answer, in a dozen or so words, is that I think that all of us, Joe and Jane Shiraz included, could do with a bit more hearkening to our inner inner-directed selves, but that we are, alas, peremptorily discouraged from doing so by virtually every species of chit-chat about the present and the semi-recent past that we meet with in every register and medium—from the reality TV show to the post-doctoral symposium. About this semi-recent past we are told by so-called conservatives that it was basically a static cakewalk in which religion, community, and Mom and apple pie walked hand-in-hand; the so-called liberals or progressives replace the “was” with a “could have been,” omit “religion,” and add an extra “Mom,” but otherwise their view is the same. Vis-a-vis the present, we are enjoined by purportedly enlightened people hailing from across the so-called political spectrum to spend more so-called quality time with our so-called significant others and so-called loved ones, to assume that “relationships are what really matter,” to pre-program our telepathically broadcast deathbed mantra to read, “I WISH I HAD SPENT MORE TIME WITH MY FAMILY.”

All craving for solitude is either pathologized (the list of apposite pathologies is too lengthy to be inserted here), demonized (as, for example, Travis Bickell or that Robin Williams character from One-Hour Photo) or ghettoized (as a peculiarly masculine biological need for “cave time” [No criticaster, as far as I know, has yet essayed the thesis that Emily Dickinson, the grandmother of all cave-timers, was a man]). Even on sitting down to write at one’s computer, the only practical modern version of the monastic copyist’s escritoire, before typing a single character one is obliged to spend five or ten minutes badgering the messaging software into allowing one to “appear offline,” lest one risk giving the cold shoulder to the subsequent inevitable rush of importunities from friends and strangers alike.

In a dozen or so further words: We have so thoroughly internalized the other-directed worldview that, insofar as we remember our immediate inner-directed and more remote tradition-directed ancestors at all, we cannot help refashioning them in our own other-directed image; and that, as a consequence, we have a near-impossible time imagining the still barely-within-reach possibility of living inner-directedly and the actual, mummified, impossibility of living tradition-directedly. For reasons of space (and sanity) I shall merely cite one example each of this ineluctable tendency, one “liberally” or “progressively,” the other “conservatively,” flavored.

My locus classicus of “progressive” other-directed amnesia is Robert Putnam, author of the much-fêted Bowling Alone and an advocate of restoring an authentic, albeit “culturally” and ethnically diversified, sense of olde-timey, straw hat-doffing and phosphate-slurping Gay (18)90s-style community to American life, of re-establishing towns of the sort where “people trusted and looked out for each other. Civic groups raised fellowships for local kids to attend college, that sort of thing”; where children “every day…come home from school and play Kick-the-Can with the kids in the neighborhood.”11 The greatest present-day obstacle to such a restoration, in Putnam’s view, is cultural misunderstanding, and the principal social scenario that occasions such misunderstanding is the sidewalk face-off: “When someone from down the street looks you directly in the eye, does it mean, ‘Hi, I’m glad to have you in town,’ or does it mean ‘You better watch your back’? Since we’re not as good at reading speech patterns from different cultures, the net effect is that in all the non-verbal cues we pick up there’s a lot more ‘noise,’ a lot lower cultural signal-to-noise ratio, especially in areas of new diversity. That may lead most people to assume the worst of everybody else and hunker down.”

To be sure, “progressive” would-be community-restaurateurs such as Putnam are hardly a new apparition on the American scene. They were already beginning to make enough of a noise sixty years ago that Riesman found it worthwhile to devote two paragraphs to an excoriating, if mildly sympathetic, critique of them. Under the name of “neotraditionalists,” he chided them for being “sophisticated, other-directed people” who elect to dine on “French food one day and Italian the next,” who may have “friends scattered over two continents” and yet think “that the ideal communities in America [are] to be found among the [tradition-directed] rural Negroes of the deep South and the French Canadians of the Quebec villages”; who, “[g]reatly troubled by the fact that Americans move their households once in every seven years […] would like to freeze people into communities in which friendship would be based largely on propinquity”; and who, “out of fear, impatience, fashion, and boredom, express nostalgia for a time in the past in which they could not have had such choices.”12

Now, inasmuch as even the trace of a living memory of the last enclaves of tradition-directed community has in the meantime disappeared, the new neotraditionalists have quite naturally and doubtless obliviously shifted the nostalgic spotlight forward to the heyday of inner-directed community. But this spotlight, in remaining an other-directed directed one, is if anything more mis-targeted now than it was then. Yes, the adult inhabitants of Sheboygan and Poughkeepsie of seventy or a hundred years ago raised college fellowships for local kids. But did they do so because they actually liked each other or the kids, or simply for want of more alluring receptacles for their surplus cash? Yes, some of the selfsame local kids played kick the can after school in the alleys and backyards of the aforementioned towns. But in the front rooms and basements of these selfsame towns, were not just as many other kids at home reading books that they might have had no less or greater an opportunity of reading in New York City or Birmingham (Alabama or England), or, indeed, Bangalore? And was either of these states of affairs especially lamentable? Only to an unregenerate other-directed of the sort that Putnam reveals himself to be in the very figurative terms of his phenomenology of the present-day American townsman’s sensorium—“noise” and “signal-to-noise ratio”—which immediately recall Riesman’s likening of the other-directed psyche to a radar.

We must remember that this psychic radar is a late-early twentieth century innovation, and that our forefathers were technologically unequipped, so to speak, either to broadcast or to receive such signals, that “[w]hile the [inner-directed] frontiersman cooperated with his sparse neighbors in mutual self-help activities, such as housebuilding or politics, his main preoccupation was with physical, not with human, nature. The American frontiersman, as Tocqueville encountered him in Michigan, was, though hospitable, uninterested in people. He found physical nature problematical enough: to alter and adapt it required that he become hard and self-reliant.”13

Putnam, being a super-other-directed American of the twenty-oughties, is interested in nothing but other people to the point of obsession, and assumes they must be correspondingly obsessively interested in each other and in him. Hence, the collective phenomenon of “hunkering down” that he attributes to “most people” is in vulgar psychoanalytic parlance a projection, a mighty ghost of a nor’easter on his pseudo-communitarian nationwide Doppler weather radar map, and furthermore—except to the admittedly undeterminable extent that a great many people in today’s other-directed directed society will contingently behave as Putnam believes they necessarily do—a pseudo-problem.

Those of us who resent being cajoled into treating it as if it were a real one can find moral solace in the example of our inner-directed ancestors, whose society “expected people to conform, not by looking to others but by obedience to their internal gyroscopes or consciences,” and while it “may have punished people for what they did […], lacked the interest and psychological capacity to find out what they were.”14. Or, in more unabashedly prescriptive terms, we may quote to ourselves that almost monotonously indefatigable chronicler of inner-directed struggle, the English novelist Arnold Bennett, as follows: “If we regard ourselves as free agents, and the personalities surrounding us as the puppets of determinism, we shall have arrived at the working compromise from which the finest results of living can be obtained.”15 (Grounds for a diagnosis of clinical sociopathy now, yes; but common sense of an almost anodyne innocuousness a hundred years ago.) And on encountering Putnam’s stranger on the sidewalk of our beloved native Friendship Heights or Blue Ash, we may suffer ourselves mechanically to greet him with a “Howdy” or “Good day to you, sir”; to proceed forthwith on our merry (or more likely grumpy) way to the pharmacist’s or haberdasher’s; and never to give another thought to him for the duration of our respective naturals.

Even if—here the reader’s lower jaw does a full-on Jacob Marley plunge—he’s wearing a turban or a tam o’shanter? Even so, dear stranger-reader. But surely Mr. Putnam is right that I ought to be engaging in “bridging my cultural capital” with these turban and tam- o’-shanter-sporting folks, babysitting their kids for them, taking sarod or bagpipe lessons from them, etc.? Well, yes: if you happen to be a particularly competent babysitter, and if your next-door neighbor both happens to be the first person to answer your babysitter’s advertisement in the Blue Ash or Friendship Heights Picayune-Gazette and to sport a tam-o’-shanter or a turban; or if you also have a genuine hankering to learn how to play the sarod or the bagpipes and if the nearest advertised sarod or bagpipe instructor happens to turn out to be your next door neighbor who also happens to turn out to sport a turban or tam-o’-shanter (not necessarily respectively [for far be it from me to take it for granted that a turban-sporting gent is more likely to be proficient at the sarod than at the bagpipes!]).

But otherwise, why bother? You must understand, dear stranger-reader, that in virtue of their capacity as unregenerate other-directeds (or UO-Ds for short) Mr. Putman and his confederates are axiomatically equally unregenerate inside-dopesters,16 who crave “to be on the inside, to join an inner circle or invent one” or, at the very least “to know the inside, for whatever peer-group satisfactions this can bring them,”17 as is attested by their very reified notion of “a culture” as a sort of ethnically-adjusted Masons’ or Shriners’ club to which one might be granted definitive entry if only one could master some eldritch repertoire of gestures and idioms. Those of us who see this entire project as fatuous and perverse, who surmise that there are no insides, who suspect that the people ostensibly enveloped by these so-called cultures generally mistrust and misunderstand each other at least as much as we misunderstand them; who, indeed, can count among our friends certain individuals born to the manner of certain alien cultures, and who yet manage to trump us time and again in the practice of the virtues and vices stereotypically assigned to our own; or who have been obliged in company, and quite against our own better judgment and inclination, to toe the line of this or that formal or informal policy statement in virtue of our place of birth, present employer, or educational history—all of those, I say, will find common cause with Riesman in his opposition to the bugbear of “enforced privatization,” to wit, the “the restrictions, economic, ethnic, hierarchical, familial, that keep people from adequate leisure opportunities, including friendship,”18 that privatize them by restricting their public circulation in the world to a specific peer group, and their choices to those supposedly appropriate to this group.

As a representative of the conservative lobe of our collective early-twenty first century amnesiac other-directed brain, I resubmit19 to you David Brooks, a man who likewise yearns for a restoration of the community spirit of the Old Republic but dates the scission of this spirit’s hamstring from our collective loss of belief in an all-seeing, all-knowing, and all-judging God, round about 1911. He admires the sheer grindstone-hankering noses of our current crop of youthful elites, as represented by the student body of Princeton, but regrets their lack of a religiously-founded sense of moral purpose, and approvingly singles out from the herd a certain student named George, who shies away from plagiarism on the hopelessly square grounds that “God will see you doing evil.” 20 Now, in bare, broadest-common-denominated semantic terms, this is a statement that any monotheist of any faith might have made in any age, from 3000 B.C. to the present. But in shrewd, practical, statistically-informed terms, it cannot but be received as the avowal of a hyper-other-directed born-again Christian of the present age, whose faith is frankly founded on a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” on mutually hi-fiving relations with JC as the ultimate glad-hander, as one’s most accommodating golf-partner or most-reliable spotter at the gym.

The God of our nineteenth-century inner-directed forefathers, insofar as they had a God or were our forefathers, was a rather more standoffish gentleman who more often than not manifested himself under the impersonal, gender-neutral name of Providence. I imagine that the God Mr. Brooks would like to install as the presiding genius of twenty-first century American civil society has more in common with this Providentially-aliased God. But so long as the de facto American monotheist remains a kind of Trekkie with a tax deduction, “marginally differentiating” himself from other faiths with a library of goofy science fiction novels, Mr. Brooks ought not to pretend that a wider propagation of the notions of God and sin on their own are more likely to improve than to vitiate the tone of our public sphere.

And yet again, even supposing the old God of our inner-directed forefathers could be reinstalled, one wonders—as one does about the logistics of Santa Claus’s itinerary—how much time he would have left over to devote to the sustenance of the community after attending to his principal mission of goading solitary inner-directeds into ignoring their slothful yearnings for the brothel, the billiard-parlor, and the horse-track: “When puritanism, as Max Weber put it, turned the world into a monastery, the fear of this inner danger [of sloth] began to plague whole social classes and not merely a few select monks. The puritan inner-directed man was made to feel as if he had constantly to hold on to himself; that without ceaseless vigilance he would let go and drift—on the assumption that one can let go if one wills or, rather, if one stops willing.”21

In short, the community-building projects of our inner-directed forefathers were merely a byproduct of their faith rather than a mandatory or analytic consequence of it. It was necessary, in their eyes, to build churches and town halls not because they were worthy ends in themselves but because God demanded them as proofs of their resistance to the temptations of sloth. As Thomas Browne—the least misanthropic man or woman you will ever encounter in person or in print, by the way—wrote in his Religio Medici, the supreme testament22 of inner-directed Christian faith:

“[T]his I think is charity, to love God for himselfe, and our neighbour for God […]. Let us call to assize the love our parents, the affection of our wives and children, and they are all dumb showes, and dreames, without reality, truth, or constancy; for first there is a strong bond of affection between us and our parents; yet how easily dissolved? We betake ourselves to a woman, forgetting our mother in a wife; the wombe that bare us in that that shall but beare our image. This woman blessing us with children, our affection leaves the levell it held before and sinkes from our bed unto our issue and picture of our posterity, where affection holds no steady mansion. They growing up in yeares either desire our ends, or applying themselves to a woman, take a lawfull way to love another better than ourselves. Thus I perceive a man may bee buried alive and behold in his grave his own issue.”23

One cannot but conclude, in modification of Voltaire’s famous maxim, that “If man had ever been enough for man, God would not have needed to be invented.” The horror of this era of terminal other-direction consists in the universality of the assumption, even among the purportedly hyper-pious, that man has always been enough; and yet from this horror, the closet inner-directed unbelieving American may snatch the following scrap of consolatory reflection: that he is under no obligation to feign envy of his intrinsically other-directed churchgoing peers for their pretense of attending to the so-called spiritual dimension of human life.24

As for the cheerily uncloseted other-directed American, he need have no fear of offending me for electing to leave that scrap well alone—not because I am so inner-directedly thick-skinned as to be incapable of taking offense, but because, being after all a child of the age into which I was born, I am sufficiently other-directedly thin-skinned to sympathize with any misgivings about the inner-directed type that he might feel. I readily concede that if, say, we find the figures in a Victorian family photographic portrait too stiff and inexpressive it is at least as much the sitters’ fault as it is ours or Mr. Daguerre’s or Mr. Eastman’s. Riesman himself emphatically discouraged all attempts to read The Lonely Crowd as a pro-inner-directed critique of the other-directed type, and professed merely to be documenting an inevitable historical change—this at a moment when American geopolitical power and prestige were at their historical acme, and hence when one supposes that the inner-directed genius still had a good bit of elbow-room (in the CIA, for example) to work within. Now that the United States has all but ceded the reins of geopolitical leadership to China,25 one is inclined to assume that the other-directed type has finally come into his own, that he has never before enjoyed a moment of such unalloyed historical timeliness.

And yet recessive strains of the inner-directed type stragglingly, stubbornly, residually, partially, feebly persist on these shores; partly on account of sheer material inertia—the classic texts of the inner-directed era remain accessible to our other-directed fingers (although, to be sure, like pornographic magazines at family-friendly convenience stores, they are often stowed away behind the reference desks of our libraries, and hence must be specially requested), partly on account of the sheer rhetorical megawattage generated by this type’s leading lights. It is genuinely difficult to fall for long under the spell of the ultimately other-directed (and fictional) pantywaist likes of Jeffrey Lebowski or Kosmo Kramer or Napoleon Dynamite or Harry Potter once having succumbed to the mighty charisma of the thoroughly inner-directed (and factual) trouserwaist likes of Samuel Johnson or Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. or Henry Adams or Marcel Proust.

And even beyond this contingently empirical state of affairs, it is perhaps impossible to avoid feeling as Lionel Trilling did, that “inner-direction must seem the more fully human [of the two tendencies]”;26 this, perhaps, at bottom, because sustained thought is the most distinctively human of activities, and talk is to thought what chewing gum is to walking—a much underrated impediment and interruptor. Not that conversation, even of the most trivial sort, is inherently or necessarily unrewarding, but that even in the best of conversational settings one’s attention is divided—in real-time, as they say27—between the actual matter in question and the psychic well-being of one’s interlocutor, such that, all things being equal, one would learn more from or teach more to someone by reading something written by him or by writing to him28. And in the worst settings—that is to say, the merely typical other-directed settings, when one’s “radar is on permanent alert”—the interlocutor-humoring portion of one’s attention becomes so huge that it practically crowds the portion devoted to the actual matter in question out of the room.

Riesman was sensible of and sympathetic to the malaise such schisms engendered in even the most thoroughgoingly other-directed psyches; and his prescribed consumer-side remedy for this malaise was the reduction of “false personalization” in the sale of goods and services—the enforced grin-garnished two-minute sales pitch for a one-dollar hamburger—in favor of more automatization. The prodigious growth in online shopping in the past decade attests to the craving for, and efficacy of, such Riesmanian solutions, despite the parallel genesis of such other-direction-spawned abominations as Facebook and Twitter.

On the score of the plight of the residually inner-directed producer, Riesman was both less sanguine and less concrete. He had tentatively in mind an “industrial army,” partly patterned on the Civilian Conservation Corps of the New Deal period (and hence uncannily echoed by certain recession-alleviating plans currently being bandied about in various milieus) in which all young people would be required to serve a term, and which would “facilitate national industrial organization […], guide the young in their final vocational choices, and “perhaps serve all of us as an initiatory alleviation of guilts about later ‘unproductive’ work, pending the arrival of our new definitions of productiveness.”29

For my part, I am glad that I am by now presumably too old to be conscripted into any such army, should it ever be constituted. The idea of anonymously contributing my own modest ten-thousand cubic yards of asphalt or PVC to the next Hoover Dam or Tennessee Valley Authority holds little romance for me. On the other hand, if I stood a chance of being the first mayor of New Sheboygan or New Poughkeepsie, or of owning a couple of thousand of acres of land (with my next-door neighbor 20 miles off), or engaging in hand-to-hand combat with some genuinely strange new race of beings, or of writing a novel about any of the above, as a consequence of my nominally anonymous involvement in the realization of some new Manifest Destiny, I might be game. I guess what I’m trying to say, specifically to my Washingtonian inside-dopester friends, is, “What is the current state of funding and planning of the Mars expedition proposed back in ’0-whenever by former-President Bush?”

– Douglas Robertson is a writer living in Baltimore, MD. He blogs at The Philosophical Worldview Artist.

1. “Robert Fulford’s column about David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd. The National Post [of Canada], July 3, 2001.” (

2. Lionel Trilling. “Two Notes on David Riesman” in A Gathering of Fugitives (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1956), pp 91-107.

3. In Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make Any Difference? (New York: Macmillan, 1960), pp. 4-5.

4. For example, the following one from David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise (2000): “The general tenor of the social criticism of the 1950s—whether it was The Organization Man or The Lonely Crowd—was that a smothering sprit of deference had settled over the land… These writers drew from a distinction the philosopher John Dewey had laid down—between ‘customary’ and ‘reflective’ morality. Customary morality is the morality of the tribe, the group, the home, the parental rules that are never challenged… In the 1950s most writers hoped that Americans would mature away from customary morality toward reflective morality. This move from home and religion toward autonomy and psychology, it was assumed, was the way of progress… The dominant trend of social thought in those years was toward individual self-expression and away from the group loyalty and deference that were the ideals in communities like St. Nick’s parish. Each person can and must find his or her own course to spiritual fulfillment, the educated-class writers were saying. It didn’t take long for their views to triumph.” (232-233). John Dewey, incidentally, is alluded to only once in The Lonely Crowd (in a footnote), and the distinction between “customary” and “reflective” morality not at all.

5. David Riesman in collaboration with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney. The Lonely Crowd. A Study of the Changing American Character. (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1950), p. 198.

6. Riesman, p. 360.

7. Riesman, p. 331-332.

8. Riesman, p. 16.

9. It should be pointed out here that the word “One-upping,” along with a host of cognate terms, was coined by Stephen Potter, author of Gamesmanship, One-Upmanship, Lifesmanship, and one or two other benchmates of The Lonely Crowd on the fifties’ “now-forgotten” squad (unless one counts the 2007 remake of the 1959 Potter-inspired film School for Scoundrels as an act of remembrance).

10. Riesman, p. 27.

11. “Bowling With Robert Putnam” (August/September 2007). Interview with Robert Putnam. The American Interest, 3(3), interviewed by Adam Garfinkle.

12. Riesman, pp. 328-329.

13. Riesman, p. 190.

14. Riesman, p. 296 (passage adjusted for conformity to sequence of tenses)

15. Arnold Bennett, The Human Machine (1908). Project Gutenberg edition. [Ebook #12811]

16. I prefer “unregenerate” to Riesman’s implicit “immature” (“As we shall see, not all other-directed people are inside-dopesters, but perhaps, for the lack of a more mature form of their type, many of them aspire to be” [p. 200]) in the light of the subsequent hijacking of “maturity” by the hyper other-directed tribe of school guidance counselors.

17. Riesman, p. 199.

18. Riesman, p. 311.

19. I.e., under the assumption that you have been reading the footnotes.

20. David Brooks, “The Organization Kid.” The Atlantic, April 2001.

21. Riesman, p. 128.

22. The two or three living Frenchmen who have read The Lonely Crowd would perhaps contest this title on behalf of Pascal’s Pensèes.

23. The Works of Sir Thomas Browne. Geoffery Keynes [brother of the economist], ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967). Vol. I, p. 92. Riesman does not allude to Browne, but I hope he would welcome Browne’s combination of gratitude to his parents for the gift of social virtues and disavowal of any but self-actuated grounds for his faith as a worthy addition to the inner-directed canon.

24. Nor, I hope it goes without saying, need he feel guilty about not queuing up behind his other-directed non-believing peers at Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins book-signings.

25. From a Riesmanian point of view the case of China is singularly interesting. Riesman thought of the China of his time, despite its recent succession of revolutions, as an archetypal tradition-directed society, on account of its high birth and death rates. The generation of Chinese born since the introduction of the one-child policy, though, has been demographically primed for other-direction, which Riesman associated with a phase of “incipient population decline” (i.e., of declining birth and death rates); and yet again, as the present rabid demand for pianos and piano teachers in China attests, this generation seems to have found its cultural footing in the Western masterpieces of the high season of inner-direction, the 19th century.

26. Trilling, p. 97.

27. Of course one also has to take some pains to avoid offending one’s correspondent in writing a letter, but here one is obviously at far greater leisure to edit one’s thoughts beforehand.

28. Not in real time, of course.

29. Riesman, p. 324. The other part of the pattern comes from Edward Bellamy’s fin-de-siècle utopic science fiction novel Looking Backward, apparently still influential enough in 1950, but very probably now almost forgotten. (The author of the present essay admits both to having heard of it and to having no immediate or distant plan to read it.)