U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Alienated No More


In the new year, we will finally get a chance to see a major film event based on the life of J.D. Salinger. Salinger was a fine writer, but his legacy is based in no small part of the legendary character he created: Holden Caulfield. I suppose students in high school (middle school perhaps as well) still read Catcher in the Rye and might still identify with Holden’s searing dismissal of “phony” people. We might consider if Holden’s signature intellectual position of alienation might describe present day Tea Partiers or, even, young men who become jihadis. But one thing we know for sure, though, alienation no longer gets the play it once did. In a great and thoughtful essay by David Steigerwald, an intellectual historian at Ohio State and one of the panelists for the plenary that closed the 2010 USIH conference, Dave states the case plainly: “No one, it seems, is alienated anymore.”

Dave is at work on large book that looks at the social psychology of post-World War II Americans through the idea of alienation. In the essay that I refer to above, Dave provides the broad outlines of his thinking and asks questions about the apparent demise of alienation as a way to understand and describe our contemporary moment.

In a section that reviews the highpoint of postwar alienation, Dave reads the social action of the early 1960s–especially the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the Port Huron Statement–as radical reactions against alienation. He shows Mario Savio’s famous address (which is available on YouTube) to his students. And while Dave occasionally sees a kindred soul react to Savio, “I’m far more impressed,” he observes, “by how few students feel any kinship with Savio, or for that matter, how few even get him.” So what is going on (or wrong)?

Dave offers three main suggestions: first “alienation is an affliction of affluence” and affluence is not a term that most students would use to define their era. Second, “the university, like niche retailers, strains to convince its clientele that each individual matters.” In other words, potential foot soldiers for the legacy of Mario Savio are working out in the new health complex on campus. Or they are plugged in at the campus Starbucks. Which is Dave’s third item: “Contemporary technologies have undergone an equally astonishing make-over.” He adds this pithy aside: “There is no Lonely Crowd in the age of Facebook.”

Of course, these conditions do not, as Dave notes, erase the real problems students face at universities or in the work force or, for that matter, while in debt. However, unlike their comrades in the UK and France, our youth do not take the streets to protest tuition hikes or longer working hours. “Americans,” Dave concludes, “have become comfortable with comfort.”

Perhaps another reason alienation disappeared or fell out of favor was that so many young people have found God. Having recently read the rich literature on the rise of the Religious Right and postwar religion in America and, for the past ten years, having taught at a Catholic college, my sense is that successive waves of young people have used religion (or some amalgam of personal faith) to define themselves. No doubt religion was probably a key factor in the alienation many young people felt during the first half of the cold war. But following Vietnam there seemed to be a significant shift in age among the religiously active.

So did the children of Mario Savio end up raising a generation of Falwell kids? And if so, what might we expect now that the religious right seems on the wane as well?

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I also recommend reading the Steigerwald essay. I love some of the concluding sentences: “If the Affluent Society coddled young people through a prolonged adolescence, the post-affluent society ensnares them into the system of consumption with the first cell phone and the first credit card; pushes them into colleges that no longer guarantee a secure future; and then shoves them into a labor force where, if they’re lucky, they’ll land a $30,000-a -year job and face indebtedness into middle age. That’s what indentured servitude is: a prolonged condition of un-freedom, during which the servant performs various kinds of menial labor.”

  2. Thanks for the interesting post. It would be an interesting teaching experiment to pair Steigerwald’s essay with selections from Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bright-Sided” about how individualistic positive thinking is consciously exploited as a tool of corporate America to keep people from challenging its hegemony.

    One other reason we may not hear from the young, alienated, educated afflulent is that some of them simply leave the U.S. Two of my friends (one PhD, one DVM) have found new lives in Tanzania and Australia, respectively. They would rather leave than stay and fight.

  3. Or rather, they find working on the cultural, political, and social problems more worth their time and effort than those here.

  4. I’m absolutely ashamed to admit that it’s taken me seven-plus months to read the Steigerwald article. But I’m definitely impressed. This kind of past-present back-and-forth encapsulates a style I’d like to nurture once I’m settled into my career (or, I should say “a permanent tenure-track job that affords me the leisure of being more reflective and less focused on CV building). Anyway, so many great lines that sum up bigger ideas. Here’s one I liked: “There is no Lonely Crowd in the age of Facebook.” – TL

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