The Pursuit of Loneliness and The Death of Philip Slater

Philip Slater and the Pursuit of Lonliness

Slater’s classic book changed the way Jesse Kornbluth thought back in 1970, and guides him even now. Here’s why.

I was saddened to learn that I now must admire Philip Slater among the dead. The New York Times obituary suggests how many lives he crammed into his 86 years — and testifies to the lasting importance of his writing. I read most of what he published and would agree: Slater was a seer. Especially for The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point, which changed the way I thought in 1970 and is a guide to me even now.

That book was published when the foreign war was with Vietnam and the domestic one was with kids and it seemed as if the country would split apart at any minute. In other words: a time that reminds me of ours.

Philip Slater was a sociologist and, for many years, a professor. His writing can be formal and require a bit of work on your part. But he could also think — and write — in sound bites, which is way beyond what most academics can do. And his thinking was more original than scholarly. The Pursuit of Loneliness is usually described as “groundbreaking,” and its publishing life has confirmed that; in four decades, more than 500,000 copies have been sold and it has attained the status of a classic. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here.]

Slater’s thesis: One function of a society is “to make its inhabitants feel safe.” Americans devote more of our resources to “security” than anything else. Yet we do not feel safe. In fact, we feel more and more unsafe.

Who threatens us? “Blacks, hippie and student radicals.” (Remember, this was 1970.)

But wait: what about Communism? Atomic weapons? (Remember, this was 1970.)

Slater found somthing strange: these global and political fears are less urgent for us than domestic, social fears — even though the domestic fears are of seemingly harmless minorities.

(Translate this into 2013 terms: Why are many of us more obsessed with gay marriage, immigration and abortion than we are with climate change?)

Slater’s explanation: We overreact to domestic “threats” because we have “secret doubts” about the way we live. “It is not what happens abroad that generates hysteria,” Slater wrote, “but rather what appears to be happening within ourselves.”

Or what’s not happening: community… engagement… dependence. Thanks to technology, we have less and less reason to know our neighbors. In a cultural sense, the cosseted rich kid is as deprived as a slum kid. And not wanting to know or deal with this — that isn’t a universal human trait: “Escaping, evading and avoiding are responses… that are peculiarly American.”

Out of sight, out of mind: we hide our slums, our poor, our unhealthy and uneducated. We value property over all else. ‘We pride ourselves on being a democracy but we are in fact slaves — a good reason we feel such vehemence for kids who violate our codes in a way as unimportant as growing their hair long.”

How’s this for analysis: We feel that resources are scarce. And so “Americans continually find themselves in the position of having killed someone to avoid sharing a meal which turns out to be too large to eat alone.”

Ouch.

Slater’s remedy? Ah, for that you’ll have to read the book. And then you have to decide if the 1960s really do have something to say to us now — and if you find more possibility for yourself in one camp or another. Either way, prepare to have your preconceptions roughed up and your loyalties challenged.

Originally published on Head Butler

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About Jesse Kornbluth

Jesse Kornbluth is is a New York-based writer and editor of HeadButler.com, a cultural concierge site he launched in 2004. As a magazine journalist, he has been a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, New York and Architectural Digest. As an author, his books include Airborne: The Triumph and Struggle of Michael Jordan; Highly Confident: The Crime and Punishment of Michael Milken and Pre-Pop Warhol. As a screenwriter, he has written for Robert De Niro, Paul Newman and PBS. On the Web, he co-founded Bookreporter.com. From 1997 to 2002, he was Editorial Director of America Online.

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