ONE NATION, TWO CULTURES

By Gertrude Himmelfarb

Knopf. 179 pp. $23

Gertrude Himmelfarb begins this inquiry into American society at the turn of the millennium with an unexceptionable premise: that it is divided between what Adam Smith called "two different schemes or systems of morality . . . of which the one may be called the strict or austere; the other the liberal, or, if you will, the loose system." As Himmelfarb herself defines the present situation, ours is "a society fragmented and polarized, not only along the familiar lines of class, race, ethnicity, religion and gender, but along moral and cultural lines that cut across the others."

This is not news, nor does Himmelfarb present it as such. The legacy of the 1960s--"a revolution in the manners, morals, and mores" of America--has been amply documented, and its repercussions are felt by all of us. These take many forms, but the one most troubling to Himmelfarb is that "the counterculture, intended to liberate everyone from the stultifying influence of 'bourgeois values,' also liberated a good many people from those values--virtues, as they were once called--that had a stabilizing, socializing, and moralizing effect on society." She continues:

"Revolutions, it is well known, develop a momentum of their own, often escalating beyond their original aims and ending up by consuming both their parents and their children. And the conjunction of revolutions, such as occurred in the 1960s, made it probable that the unintended consequences would eventually overwhelm the intended ones. Thus the beneficial results of the civil rights movement were partially--fortunately only partially--negated by two other developments that coincided with it: the cultural revolution that denigrated precisely those virtues (work, thrift, temperance, self-discipline) that are conducive to economic improvement and social mobility; and the Great Society, which was meant to facilitate the entry of minorities into the open society of opportunity and self-fulfillment, but all too often drew them into a closed society of chronic dependency."

As a result of these (and other) influences, we now have a society that is divided not along lines of class but, however roughly, along what are essentially moral lines. It is "most conspicuous in such hotly disputed issues as abortion, gay marriage, school vouchers, and prayers in public schools," but "it has larger ramifications, affecting beliefs, attitudes, values, and practices on a host of subjects ranging from private morality to public policy, from popular culture to high culture, from crime to education, welfare, and the family."

On one side of this divide, as Himmelfarb sees it, are those who might be called the permissivists, for whom "the reluctance to be judgmental pervades all aspects of life"; on the other is what used to be the majority but is now the "dissident culture," which "represents a counter-counterculture, a reaction against the increasingly prevalent and increasingly 'looser' system of morals." This second culture is associated in the public eye (as filtered through the lens of the media) with religious fundamentalists, but, as Himmelfarb correctly says, it is "a much larger and more varied sector of the population, including many people who are not notably religious but who do have strong moral concerns."

At this point the question is: If one believes, as Himmelfarb does, that the country is afflicted with moral and cultural "diseases," how then does one go about curing them? It is here, not surprisingly, that "One Nation, Two Cultures" comes up short. For the historian as for the journalist, facts and analyses are more readily come by than remedies. She believes that what is needed is "a restoration of civil society," which has "the function of mediating between the individual and the state, restraining the excessive individualism of the one and the overweening designs of the other, socializing the individual by imbuing him with a sense of duties and responsibilities as well as rights and privileges."

That is an estimable, indeed unexceptionable, goal, but achieving it is likely to be difficult if not impossible. The permissive (or, to use a less loaded word, tolerant) society is deeply entrenched, not merely among the illuminati but in the populace at large, thanks in large part to a system of mass entertainment that has no redeeming moral viewpoint whatsoever. Our society is, as she acknowledges, "schizoid," showing "evidence of moral disarray on the one hand and of a religious-cum-moral revival on the other." Whether the second is strong enough to influence the first is at best questionable.

Himmelfarb talks about the law and law enforcement as "instruments of moral legitimization," and certainly she is right that our laws (tax laws, for example) often reflect our moral convictions and aspirations. But the inescapable reality is that one person's morals are another's anathema; in a society as heterogeneous as ours, reaching moral consensus is even more difficult than reaching political consensus.

But Himmelfarb is exactly right to point out that "the two cultures are living together with some degree of tension and dissension but without civil strife or anarchy." The divisions among us are deep and at times painful, but they are not fatal. To borrow a useful phrase from the mostly useless 1960s, we keep on keeping on. That, in the end, may be the most valuable lesson of this perceptive and stimulating book.