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The Rise of Selfishness in America.

The Rise of Selfishness in America. James Lincoln Collier. Oxford, $24.95. How did a prudish, hardworking, God-fearing country become, in a mere half-century or so, a republic of hedonists and narcissists addicted to drugs, alcohol, television, sports, vacations, gossip, fast cars, and slow work? Two ways, according to James Lincoln Collier: gradually and then suddenly. Like Virginia Woolf, Collier thinks that human character changed sometime around December 1910, although in the case of the American character he comes up with a pivotal year of 1912 by factoring in such events as Freud's lectures at Clark University in 1909 and the 1913 Armory Show in New York. From this moment on, Collier traces the demise of Victorian morality as embodied in such ideals as conformity to community standards, self-denial, temperance, and the work ethic. After sketching pastoral, pre-industrial Jeffersonian America, he goes on to document, through the rise of the city and waves of immigration, a broad, slow movement "towards increasing permissiveness in sexuality, wider acceptance of the consumption of alcohol as a human norm, greater involvement with the entertainment media, and in general, a continued insistence on the primacy of the self. By contrast, in the early seventies there was a swing politically to the right, the ending of post-war prosperity, and a dramatic upward surge in selfishness which very quickly became so gross as to effect a qualitative change in American life."

The sudden acceleration of self-interest putatively occurred in 1973, signaled by the first appearance of public hair in Playboy (Marilyn Chambers in the tub, in a pose that hinted at autoeroticism--two taboos for the price of one). Collier's date is actually not as arbitrary as it seems: He marshals a good deal of data to support the notion that the social, sexual, and pharmacological revolutions of hip sixties youth were adopted by the masses in the seventies. Certainly, by the mid-seventies, the midwestern construction worker who was beating up hippies in '68 had grown his hair out, donned bell bottoms, and started smoking Kalamazoo Gold on his lunch break.

The date also suggests that even though the Republican dynasty established by Nixon seemed to signal a recrudescence of "traditional values," the ethic of selfishness was merely hiding out. When the time was right, it hopped into its BMW and went into fifth gear under former actor Ronald Reagan, a divorce ostensibly committed to religion and family who neither attended church nor doted on his offspring.

A Kinsey Institute study completed in 1970 concluded, "Our data have shown that patterns of sexual morality in 1970 tended to be quite conservative. The findings do not support the contention that a sexual revolution . . . is now occuring in the United States." About half of surveyed Americans at that time believed that premarital sex was wrong under any circumstances. Now, of course, only Pat Buchanan and Pat Boone cling to such a belief. Meanwhile, another study found cocaine and marijuana use doubled among 12- to 17-year-olds between 1972 and 1974.

Collier attributes the triumph of the sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll ethic in part to the prosperity that followed World War II. The dog licks his genitals, in other words, because he can. He also blames television, the human-potential movement, and the sapping of American morale in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate.

A blend of social, cultural, and economic history, The Rise of Selfishness reads like a kind of mournful survey of the triump of modernism, a sort of inverse replay of one's introductory liberal arts courses where the heroes--see Joyce shatter the tyranny of Edwardian social conventions and Victorian narrative conventions--are cast as unwitting villains, contributors to the decline and fall of the American character. In his broad survey of the fine and popular arts, Collier occasionally and understandably forgets which side he's on, exulting, at one point, at the way in which Manet's blatant Olympia "ripped the skin from Victorian prurience." An authority on the history of jazz, he is more illuminating on the development of popular music and dance than he is on literature and the visual arts.

If Collier sounds vague at some points, criminally obvious at others, and frequently like an Ayn Randian reactionary, he reveals himself in the final chapter to be a disciple not only of Jefferson but also of John Kenneth Galbraith. He idealizes the small, rural villages of the last century, with their communal ethic, and wonders how we might begin again to put the public good ahead of the private. Like Galbraith in The Affluent Society, the calls for a more active government and a far higher ratio of public spending to private consumption.

The money is there for cleaner air, more reliable subways, larger drug rehabilitation programs, and all the rest of it--if we want these things. But we will have to give up something to get them. It is a very simple equation: Parents who vote for candidates who promise to hold down taxes are ensuring that their children will have available to them a rich smorgasbord of drugs to choose from. Big city dwellers who vote for such candidates are making it certain that murderers will be released back onto the streets from overcrowded prisons. Suburbanites who vote down town budgets . . . are guaranteeing that the problems of the inner cities which they fled will presently come out of the ghettos and camp on their doorsteps."

Harsh words indeed. Fortunately the rest of us can't hear because we're watching "Monday Night Football" or "Entertainment Tonight."
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Author:McInerney, Jay
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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