Christopher Lasch (1932-1994) was one of the 20th-century’s great cultural critics. But did you know he is the author of a writing guide? Here is a taste of Max Ridge’s piece on Lasch’s 2002 book (published posthumously) Plain Style: A Guide to Written English:
Most remember Christopher Lasch as a cultural critic. His most popular books—The Culture of Narcissism (1979), The True and Only Heaven (1991), and The Revolt of the Elites (1995)— gave voice to a peculiarly American form of counter-enlightenment. Well-meaning professionals, with their therapeutic culture, false meritocracy, and discount brand of progress, displeased him. It is unsurprising that he continues to inspire so many groaning conservatives and disaffected anti-capitalists in our moment of partisan realignment. Those who chafe at the moralism of the professional-managerial class will find much to admire in Lasch-the-disparager.
Yet it is Lasch-the-pedagogue, author of the slim and rather unsung writing guide Plain Style (2002), who might speak most usefully to American radicals today. Plain speech and writing grounded Lasch’s theory of citizenship, representing an ethic of personal conduct in the public sphere as well as a standard against which to hold evasive elites to account. (Plain Style’s editor, Stewart Weaver, contrasted this style with the official “euphemism, jargon, evasion, and downright lying” surrounding the Vietnam War.) Despite its uncompromising and didactic tone, Plain Style remains a democratic text—and a guide for the deliberative cultivation of our political language.
Lasch’s 1990s disquisitions on language pulse with uncanny prescience. Writing in Harper’s in 1994, he complained of “a world in which words and images bear ever less resemblance to the things they appear to describe.” The proliferation of peculiar vocabularies, especially among an elite whose remoteness from the majority manifested in its language, came at the expense of a functional middle-class culture. He believed that community depends on shared understanding. The repudiation of plain (and universally intelligible) talk doubled, Lasch wrote in The Revolt of the Elites, as a “contempt for the general public.”
Today the very idea of a general public seems distant. A stalemate between competing idioms persists in its place; one can hardly imagine a common political language universally intelligible to all.
How did we get here? Although Lasch never witnessed the dawn of Facebook and Twitter, he anticipated the inundation of sarcasm and slang that would define those platforms. The mass adoption of social media desensitized users to semantic peculiarity, eccentricity, and insincerity in political argument. Everyday political talk rejects the language of universality in favor of the idioms of affinity. To call a candidate or policy based or cringe, pilled or normie—terms without a fixed meaning even for those who invoke them—is to situate oneself in a particular group against an ill-defined mainstream. While the plain sermon intends to persuade, social media algorithms reward the in-joke.
Yet one cannot blame new media entirely for the demise of the demotic. Lasch himself would probably locate the extinction of common political language in the transformation of the American university beginning in the 1960s. Responding to egalitarian concerns from students, professors and university administrators embraced a radically pluralistic approach to curricula—a development Lasch summed up as “cultural pluralism and the new paternalism.”
Rather than confront the inherent role of the university as a class-sorting mechanism (as well as an engine of the military-industrial complex), Lasch argued, educators settled on a pedagogical model that valued the individual and immediate experiences of students over general civic and literary instruction. In lieu of learning a shared curriculum, students earned course credits through activities that barely pushed them out of their individual comfort zones. For Lasch, this turn rendered the university “a diffuse, shapeless, and permissive institution that has absorbed the major currents of cultural modernism and reduced them to a watery blend, a mind-emptying ideology of cultural revolution, personal fulfilment, and creative alienation.” Secondary education was not immune from these trends. In high schools, Lasch lamented, electives on radio programming, genre fiction, and other eclectic topics distracted students from coursework that covered “the classics of world literature.” The equation of “high culture” with “elitism,” he wrote, left teachers with the role of warding off boredom rather than confronting ignorance.
Anti-intellectualism in the name of emancipation bothered Lasch to no end. By pandering to students, educational professionals hastened the commodification of American pedagogy, and with it the disunification of a once universal civic language. “The whole problem of American education comes down to this: in American society, almost everyone identifies intellectual excellence with elitism,” he warned in The Culture of Narcissism. “This attitude not only guarantees the monopolization of educational advantages by the few; it lowers the quality of elite education itself and threatens to bring about a reign of universal ignorance.”
Read the rest at Dissent.