Archive for January, 2014


The Appeal of “Downton Abbey”

January 27, 2014
"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

“Svaardvaard” Bill Bornschein

As the BBC production Downton Abbey begins its fourth season amidst the typical swirl of sneak previews and gossip, it occurred to me that at least some of the show’s popularity reflects Becker’s ideas about culture. To be sure, there are many factors in the show’s success, foremost among them good writing and strong acting. Beyond the technical elements however, lies a storyline that speaks to our immediate condition as post-moderns who are maddeningly self-aware.

Downton Abbey tells the story of aristocrats in early twentieth-century England. Their travails revolve around the breakdown of their hierarchical world in the face of modernity. A parallel hierarchy of the servant class who wait on the aristocrats also suffers from similar stresses as the various liberation movements challenge their security. I maintain that part of the appeal of Downton Abbey is the vicarious pleasure we receive as we see the characters moving confidently in their prescribed roles. There is a clear rule book of behavioral expectations for both aristocrats and servants and those rules are framed against unconscious assumptions about the way things are. On that level we experience the program as a nostalgic reminder of a simpler day when Walter Cronkite could end his newscast with a confident “And that’s the way it is,” without the postmodern smirk of “Who says so?”

In a recent piece for The Wrap (, critic Tim Molloy mocks the trivial concerns of the Downton Abbey crew: maid who quits without notice, or an apron that rips at an inopportune time. My favorite trivial crisis is the cook who is stymied by an electric mixer. But is this really so different from contemporary technology anxiety that affects many in my baby boomer generation? Perhaps it is the very triviality that Molloy observes which allows the culture to work its magic and protects everyone at Downton Abbey from the terror of the human condition. As Becker observed, “The real world is too terrible to admit. It tells man that he is a small trembling animal who will someday decay and die. Culture changes all of this, makes man seem vital to the universe; immortal in some ways.” The detail and rigidity of the social order is perhaps a testament to its effectiveness as character armor.

The struggle to maintain a coherent narrative of meaning in the face of change is no less a challenge for us than for the fictional characters. In fact, the center holds less securely today. We recognize the trivial as trivial, hence the game Trivial Pursuit. The Downton characters invest their social roles with meaning in a marvelously sincere and unconscious fashion. Their repression works. To borrow Kierkegaard’s image, they stand on the brink of eternity wondering if their socks match. But again, the plot is driven by that very condition of unconscious duty crumbling under the stress of modernity. Lou Reed captured the theme beautifully when he sang, “Self-knowledge is a dangerous thing, the freedom of who you are.” Our freedom renders the future more open and therefore more terrifying. This explains the current flight of many people into reactionary tribes and fundamentalisms, both sacred and secular.

Fortunately, there are other ways of dealing with the terror that accompanies freedom. One way is to apply the “anthropologist game.” In the original form of the game, people exchange wallets and, like an anthropologist, analyze the culture. Because they are objectified by the other person, assumed truths are seen in a new light. Similarly, Downton Abbey provides a familiar yet exotic world that we can hold safely and reflectively at arm’s length, seeing people wrestle with our shared human condition. As soap operas go, not bad.


Some Thoughts on Reading “Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist,” Part 4

January 9, 2014
"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

Like a number of other notable intellectuals who found the youthful excesses of the student-led New Left movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s to be abhorrent and frightening, Peter L. Berger denounced this movement and threw his lot in with the emerging web of academics, foundations and think tanks that was coalescing during the Reagan administration to oppose the forces of “Leftism.” I purposely use the scare quotes above, because while I do not doubt the sincerity of these people’s feelings that the Left presented a real and dangerous force to be reckoned with, there is no question that with the wisdom of hindsight, it is very clear that this force was mostly a mirage rooted in youthful energy. Meanwhile, the real power to shape every concrete aspect of social, political, economic life and culture (with the possible short-lived exception of pop music, which itself was soon fully coopted) always remained firmly in the hands of those with money and deeply-rooted establishmentarian connections. As even current advertising makes clear, coopting every symbol of New Left “revolution” to sell the endless products of late-capitalist consumption (He, denizen of the corner office: “Yea! Stick it to The Man!”  The office underling: “…but Sir, you ARE the Man.”) the supposed power of the New Left, along with the danger to the social order it represented, was always only one of style and not genuine substance.

Again, I have no need to question the sincerity of the initial feelings of threat felt by that cadre of intellectuals mentioned above. Though one of the younger of the Boomer generation, I am certain old enough myself to remember the short-lived sense, circa 1968-1970, that as the song said, “there’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.” OK. But the shallowness and ineffectual nature of the supposed revolutionary spirit became clear to anyone with half a brain within a few short years. In the meantime, the forces of real power were reasserting themselves. As we know now, as a result of the “Powell Memo” of 1971, by 1980 there was a growing network of generously funded foundations, think tanks, magazine and journals established, all dedicated simultaneously to smashing whatever power there was on the Left even while keeping the myth of a powerful and danger Left alive, and to employ and massively fund the “research” projects of this cadre of intellectuals for both purposes. As the years have worn on, the very pitiful non-existence of any real and tangible power on the Left or even Liberal side of social politics appears to have only increased the need to shout all the louder about the hidden dangers it represents. Again, I do not necessarily doubt the sincerity of the original feelings of threat felt among this cadre of intellectuals. But it is simply not credible to me that such well-trained analysts of society have continued all these decades now to believe their own disturbing rhetoric about it.

These were the folks among whom Berger associated, both professionally and personally, during his late 40s, 50s and 60s. Berger claims that he was never really one of them, that he always maintained his sense of intellectual distance and independence, and that he remained basically the true liberal he had always been; and in fairness, it needs to be said that at key junctures Berger did act to assert his independence, for example, by having his name removed from the Contributing Editor mast of First Things magazine, as it moved increasingly from being a voice of traditional ecumenism to that of the most militant type of Roman Catholic conservative dogmatism (though we might notice that his conformities, such as The Hartford Appeal, were much more loud and public than his assertions of independence.). Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that these were years that might have otherwise been ones of solidifying his most concrete and lasting contributions, both to sociology and to wider academia. What mess of pottage did we get instead?

Berger veered off into economics and the sociology of development. Well and good. But what we got was book after book, article after the next, extolling the virtues of the Capitalist model of development over that of the Socialist model. In this, Berger always claimed his vaunted “value neutrality,” that he only went where the raw data led him. This illustrates vividly what I have found most frustrating about Berger’s work after about 1980. He excoriates the “ideological blindness” of others, especially academics of communist and socialist countries, in many places coming very close to or even crossing the line of suggesting that they largely see things the way they do only because seeing it that way enhances their power and economic self-interest. This is what we would expect from the author of The Social Construction of Reality. But in his own work, Berger resorts to the justification of value neutrality, even when referring to the “studies” he engaged in for the tobacco industry and their deep-pocketed attempts to undermine the public credibility of the nascent anti-smoking campaign in society.

Berger noted, rightly, that all economic development is a trade-off between the traditional forces of meaning (community, religion, tribal and family bonds) and that of increased material standards of living. His general view (where the raw data led him) was to see that while both the capitalist and socialist models of development more or less equally undermined the traditional forces of meaning, the capitalist mode at least delivered the material goods, a rising standard of living for the vast population, while the socialist model succeeded here barely at all or was even counter-productive. His work repeats this “finding” over and over again.

To put it mildly, Berger found no trouble lining up sources for continued funding of this work. It is highly doubtful, however, that any of it will be of lasting value to the profession. In the first place, that we would even think of “socialism” as a model for development is a relic of the Cold War competition between the USA and the USSR, which has little or no organic roots in the way people actually cooperate to create wealth. Secondly, the particular model, whether socialist or capitalist, is vastly overridden in the results it produces by such factors as whether or not there is an established and functioning independent judicial system in the countries undergoing development (certainly for a Weberian questions such as these should be front and center, not whether the social ideology is socialist or capitalist.) Berger and his contributors may have argued (I haven’t read all of those many studies and conference reports) that an independent judicial system is more compatible with the capitalist model. But I hardly think this could be empirically demonstrated unambiguously. If anything, our current experience in the USA suggests that the highly skewed distribution of wealth inherent in the capitalist model tends to undermine judicial independence.

The vast majority of that material is unlikely to have any lasting value to the profession also because so much of it was simply intellectual window dressing, an academic fig leaf, for people that were going to do what they wanted to do anyway, regardless of what the “studies” indicated, up to and including the use of economic and military coercion. At one point, Berger seems aware of this role he willingly played during those years. He relates being invited by very well-funded sources to come to a planning meeting at a private location in Texas, supposedly focused on economics and the Caribbean. It was all a bit vague, and while the money was there in abundance for just about any study he wanted to pursue, no one really seemed to care what he studied, or in the results produced. In retrospect, even Berger himself cannot escape the sneaking realization that his real purpose there was to provide a known public name as fig leaf for a meeting, the real purpose of which was to plan out covert strategy (clearly illegal) for getting funds and weapons to the Contra movement fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

I am not at all impugning Berger’s motives, nor suggesting that he himself took part in illegal activities in relation to Contra support. I am only saying it is unlikely that the comfortably funded report he produced as part of this venture will have any lasting value. I also must say that I would at least have hoped such an experience would have led the author of The Social Construction of Reality to engage in some very deep introspection about the current power relationships in society and his own place in that power structure. We might imagine him pondering the question, “If that is what they had in mind, why did they feel so confident inviting ME to be the beard?” There is no evidence here that Berger was led to engage in such introspection.

Despite these disappointments, I do want to say that this was an enjoyable book. Berger’s dry wit is evident throughout. He studiously stays on a “sociological” track, and refuses beyond a few tantalizing statements here and there to get into his personal (especially, religious) views. I found this odd for one known primarily as a sociologist of religion, but it is in keeping with the method of writing Berger established for himself over the decades, and it also raises my hopes that another volume focusing on this other side is in the making.

I know I have expressed a lot of frustration with Berger in these installments. In the end, however, the overall message I take away is that even our most highly regarded heroes and role models are “human, all too human.” Some have the advantage of dying young, before they have a chance to disappoint. Others, like Berger, live long lives and leave behind a very mixed legacy as a result. As readers of The Denial File know, one of my main intellectual heroes is Ernest Becker. Certainly he has never disappointed, right?! But let’s face it, Becker died very young, and though he did heroically stand up against S.I Hayakawa’s crack down on the student movement in the late 1960s (costing him his job, among other things) Becker also clearly had his strong reservations and revulsions toward the excesses of the time (as can be seen in his stated preference for Apollonian order over Dionysian disorder.) Becker can be seen clearly moving in an increasingly “conservative” direction in his last few works. At the very least, I think we can all agree that Becker’s political philosophy, such as it is (“seek maximum freedom within maximum community”) is highly compatible if not congruent with Berger’s idea of “radical in analysis, conservative in application.” Many times as I was reading this book, I wondered what my view of Becker would be had he lived to 89 instead of just 49.

Well, if for nothing else we have to thank Peter L. Berger for that vision of sociology he formulated with his group back in the early 1960s and for the vivid and entertaining style with which he communicated this vision to the rest of us. As I notice my students even today lighting up to the insights sparked in them by Berger’s work from that time, I know that at least that segment of his work does and will continue to have lasting value. May God bless you, Peter L. Berger.