Thursday, 11 November 2010

Herbert J. Gans: America in 2033?

One of the unexpected pleasures of octogenarianship is discovering the final triumphs of one you knew at the beginning of his career. Herbert J. Gans was born in 1927, in Germany. Like me, in Battle Creek. And we both landed at Penn the year our academic lives took off:1957. I as a Carnegie Post Doctoral Fellow in American Studies, to create a pioneer humanities course on “The Mass Society”, and Herb as the mentee of that great urbanist, Martin Meyerson (1922-2007) to whom Herb dedicates his latest book (his 12th!),”Imagining America in 2033:How the Country Put Itself Together After Bush” (U of Michigan, 2008).

Not only did our new academic agendas on mass culture overlap, he as a sociologist, me as an Americanist, but he lived in Levittown, N.J. and I in Levittown, Pa. His main man was Meyerson, whom he praised in his dedication as one “who first encouraged me to think creatively about the future.” Just so, was Gilbert Seldes my mindbending inspiration, and whom I nominated then as the first Dean of the Annenberg School. Gilbert inspired me to help create the humanistic study of Mass Culture. Herb kept clarifying throughout his career at Columbia, America’s hidden class system as it affected city planning, information media, and mass education.

“As the title suggests, this book is an imagined history of the first third of the twenty-first century. It describes an extraordinary period in America in which the country put itself back together after the political and economic disasters to which it had been subjected at the start of the century.” (p.ix.) The book begins, in a novel way, as a utopian fiction in the tradition of Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward: 2000-1887” and ends as a series of clearly stated position papers on the issues that made the stolen Bush Presidency such a tragic American aberration.

Gans confesses he was moved by Bellamy in high school (he fled Nazism at age 14). In graduate school he began to think about writing a “realistic utopia”, “in which credible people, grappling with standard economic and political obstacles, were creating a better future.” (p.xii.) He was “encouraged in this project by my two primary mentors, Martin Meyerson and David Riesman, both of whom were active in the post-World War II revival of interest in utopian planning.” Gans’ first two books, “The Urban Villagers” and ”The Levittowners”, took the position that these working class milieux were not the stereotyped parodies that snooty Upper Westside New York eggheads made them out to be.

I very well remember(will I ever forget?) how this Modernist scorn worked out at the Daedalus Conference on Mass Culture in which I was given the unprized assignment(Gilbert was too busy!) of defending the Gannish contention that these new institutions were not plain and simple moral and esthetic bankruptcies, but human, thus corrigible, institutions in transition. The conference literally ended with the poet Randall Jarrell waggling his prophetic beard at me, and intoning:” Mr. Hazard, you’re the man of the future, and I’m glad I’m not going to be there.” This, alas, was the majority vote! Sadly, Jarrell committed suicide some months later. I loved teaching his poems, however dementedly stereotyped his sociological conclusions.

Incidentally, my commitment as a humanist to a canon of past texts was anathema to the sociologist in Herb. He talked rather of “taste cultures”, plural, dealing with particularities of a sociological subset. In Black Talk: Different Strokes for Different Folks. I had been drifting to this pluralism as I cross-examined my own teaching both in high school, college and research university. It’s why I finally devised “International English”, an open-ended humanism that was future-oriented. If the Old Regime prized the best that had been thought and said, IE scans the horizon for future literary options, in the works of ,say, Irish poet Seamus Heaney, Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, and South African novelist Nadine Gordimer. My future-centred humanism became solidly based on Herb’s multifaceted singularities.

Herb’s fictional gimmick was four imagined presidencies: James Caruso (2012-20); Frank O’Hara (2020-24);Susan Gordon (2024-32); and Stephen Hernandez (1933-). Middle class American teacher, Jewish feminist—the Goldberg family name was anglicized when they moved South, Republican interim, Latino ending his first year of melioristic politicking. The action begins the night before Hernandez was to be inaugurated with Caruso and Gordon advising him (GOP O’Hara sent his regrets!)and a female Secret Service driver delivering them to the new President for a palaver in a safe house in Georgetown. He had begun “this story” during the Nixon darkness and took it up in earnest “about the time the Supreme Court elected George W. Bush president in 2000.”

The real action begins in his historical fantasy when “the seculars” take over.”The once powerful religious-business alliance is ancient history now, Protestant, Catholic, Jews, and even Muslim conservatives having become so disgusted with professional politicians that they have returned to their churches, synagogues, and mosques.” (p.4.) Gans describes a new economy where there were fewer very rich and very poor.

When retail and services begin to dominate the economy, almost everyone finds more government intervention congenial because necessary. For example, outsourcing makes company health insurance unaffordable so the government takes over. Nurses become “near M.D.’s”-- to relieve hospital jams. On the other hand, the U.S. was no longer the most powerful nation on earth. And the now unaffordable full blown wars on terror were to be replaced by less expensive intelligence services. The key to his multivalent future was thoughtful adjustments to inevitable change.

His idealists sought better political representation. Jerrymandering is outlawed. Two senators per state, no matter the population. Big cities get senators as they became states like Hamburg, Berlin, and Bremen in Germany. Our so-called Sacred Documents got a respectful once over. Reason replaces ranting in our political life. The Electoral college is abolished. Election financing goes public.

Education is revised to conform to changing job availabilities. In short, all of our institutions get eagle-eyed, to see if they can work more effectively. Gans’ fiction, as these issues are addressed and sometimes solved, is gradually and graciously replaced by out and out position papers. The book thus ends as a thoughtful critique of our old institutions in the lights of a new century. If you’ve read his first eleven books, this is a replay leavened by his imagined hypothetical presidencies.

If you’ve never read a book of his before, where have you been in the preceding century? Don’t fret! All Herb has learned in his six decades of research and policy proposals is here for you to help make our next third more satisfying and productive. Never dull. (His paragraphs on the necessity for good English in scholarship will relax the tight-assed English teacher who has “grown up” regarding Sociology as a major intellectual mistake.) Never desperate: he keeps his cool even when outraged, as in America’s contemptible treatment of the poor.

And I’ve got great good news for Herb: The Museum of Modern Art has just abandoned its eighty misleading years of following Philip Johnson’s meretricious fixation that Architecture is mainly about Art for the Critic rather than Function for the Client. What gives? Columbia University’s star architectural historian, Barry Bergdoll, has just taken over as MOMA’s new boss! A New Humanitarianism is taking over! (See Nicolai Ouroussoff,”Real-Life Design: Erecting Solutions to Social Problems,” New York Times, October 14, 2010.) Barry must have been listening to his Columbia colleague Gans!

Read another version at Broad Street Review

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