Painfully Obvious


New Rules: Searching for Self-Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down, by Daniel Yankelovich, New York: Random House, 1981, 278 pp., $15.95.

If you have to read one more time about the three types of statistics, courtesy, I believe, Benjamin Disraeli—lies, damn lies, and statistics—you may want to throw up. For that matter, if you are subjected again to a compendium of real-life case studies, the names changed to protect somebody or other, you may want to throw out your Studs Terkel, too, and that would be a great shame.

There is merit in the statistical as in the anecdotal approach to almost any subject; sometimes there is merit in both at the same time. For instance: 43 percent of the respondents indicated that their orgasms were better now than when they were first married, and as "Hilda" said: "My Sam, now let me tell you about Sam.…" With due respect to Shere Hite, who so overwhelmingly combines the statistical and the anecdotal methods in her new hernia-inducing tome, this about male sexuality, it is all just a bit much. It is all very "scientific," of course, if you squint and don't worry too much about the flaws in methodology, the irritation to the brain that comes from trying to reconcile acceptance of a minuscule sampling, gathered neither randomly nor "scientifically" but catch-as-catch-can, with that abiding faith in the power of tables and graphs and charts of, broadly speaking, statistics.

One thirsts for breathtaking opinion, for broad, sweeping generalizations arising from a fertile mind, culled from lengthy observation, ruminated upon, then gracefully put forward. One longs, speaking of the face of America, for Tocqueville, who, alas, died some years ago. The age of Martin Van Buren had Tocqueville; the Age of Reagan has Daniel Yankelovich. And so it goes.

Mr. Yankelovich, a pollster given in his latest book to turgid philosophizing, discerns a "cultural revolution" in America. He has found a "new American philosophy of life," following on the heels of two earlier stages, which might with no serious harm to Mr. Yankelovich's thesis be defined, in capsule, as the outgrowth of the Puritan world view and the subsequent introspective era just now shriveling. The author has rather convincingly shown the limits of what he calls the "self-fulfillment" approach to life, though William Hamilton's cartoons in the New Yorker have for years (actually from the days, two decades ago, when we were classmates at Yale and his drawings appeared on campus) been ribbing precisely that approach.

What seems like billions of words pass before us as Mr. Yankelovich makes the obvious unmistakably obvious. There is only so far one can go with white wine and cheese and biodegradable peanut butter; there is a terminal point to the satisfaction to be found in the endless, maybe beginningless, inward glance. There is—Mr. Yankelovich's statistics and his dreary, albeit not utterly boring little vignettes of "Margaret" and "Sara Lou" and "Miguel" and so on, show us—a dead end to all that. Even those who tingle at the vocabulary of individualism might not always enjoy saying it out loud, but we, too, recognize some gap, perhaps some chasm, in lives devoted entirely to Me.

Our author has discovered, somewhat to his own surprise, surprisingly, that "people express a longing for connectedness, commitment and creative expression," along with a "disenchantment with self-absorption."

Good Lord, what a bother! We don't trust our government—surprise?—and we don't trust many of our other major institutions, either. Again: surprise? No surprise.

Our generations are and in future will be even more at war or at least in conflict with each other. If anyone has any doubt at all about the cultural conflicts that beset us, consider the rise of the Moron Majority and its embrace, heartily or with minor, picky exceptions, by virtually every conservative organization, publication, and noise maker. Mr. Yankelovich doesn't say this, but it might as well be said: the loathsome New Right arises from the same soil as the loathsome New Left, from, that is, dissatisfaction with the ethos of the moment—in the case of the New Left, from abhorrence of Ike-era complacency; in the case of the New Right, from detestation of the free-wheeling, seemingly valueless, and manifestly self-centered orientation of many among the sprightly trend-setters of the recent, the very recent days.

If one can without No-doz make it to the final pages of Daniel Yankelovich's book, one will be able to make what one can of a dozen or so paragraphs of mind-numbing vagueness. Permit an abbreviation of them: The '80s are going to be a bitch of a decade. We find our institutions rotting. We're on the road to an anarchy of institutions. We might become gloomy and begin to despair about all this. But we needn't get blue—we can Get Committed. Permit now an extended quotation, which, as the centerpiece to the medium-size magazine article that this large book ought to have been, could as well suffice for a review:

We need new rules to break up the rigid segmentation of American life. Why should people who are still healthy and vigorous at sixty-five retire totally from work and their involvement in everyday life? We need them to pull their own weight. Why should postsecondary education be confined to adolescents who, fatigued with school, are least well equipped to benefit from it? Why shouldn't people 'retire' for a few years or go back to school in their productive middle years?

We need new rules to encourage people to channel their creativity away from themselves and back onto the concrete tasks that need doing in the new era—creating new forms of energy, taming technology, inventing new industries, creating new jobs, competing more effectively with the Japanese and Germans and Koreans, rebuilding the American infrastructure, reaccumulating capital, launching new…

And you can fill in the rest. It is all mush anyhow, either dubious, arising from the open-endedness of the pollster's queries, or so obvious that you know it already.

New Rules took a lot of trees to produce. Knock on wood. You don't have to read the bloody thing unless your idea of an uplifting time is S&M—the sadism of the pedant-preacher-philosopher, the masochism of the one who asks for it.

David Brudnoy, a contributing editor of REASON, is host of a New England-wide radio talk show, critic-at-large of Boston's CBS station, and a syndicated columnist.