The Conformist, Anti-Emersonian Reality

(extracted and adapted from National Lies by Charles Churchyard)

During the antebellum era, some authors applauded public opinion as a force for moral good, an ever-vigilant and all-seeing censor, “before which the most exalted tremble for their future as well as present fame,” as Thomas Jefferson proclaimed with warm approval. In a treatise entitled Democracy (1841), George Sidney Camp went further than the rest of his contemporaries in this direction. He positively exulted in the fact that public opinion would ruthlessly crush anyone who dared to advocate bad ideas—like atheism, monarchy, or aristocracy. Such thinking deserved to be suppressed, he declared, and in doing so, Americans were acting, not as a tyrannous majority, but as a free and enlightened people giving expression to “the nature of man.”

less concern for
individual rights
and more attention
to individual

However accurate it may have been as a description of reality, Camp’s enthusiastic if inchoate proclamation of the democratic dominance of the masses failed to win enduring popular support or to inspire imitators. As Emersonian individualism increasingly took hold and became the dominant ideology of the new nation, praise for restrictions imposed by collective opinion was expressed with increasingly less frequency and less conviction.

It is only in times of national distress and doubt, when freedom seems to have allowed large numbers of individuals to go astray, that voices in favor of social conformity begin to be heard. This happened during the excesses of capitalism in the late Nineteenth Century and during the excesses of personal liberation in the 1960s and 1970s. In both these eras, various authors and pundits called in effect for a new balance to be struck between the values of individualism and those of community. They advocated less concern for individual rights and more attention to individual responsibilities. The failure of both these efforts has been discussed elsewhere, as well as the eventual and inevitable frustration of all those who attempt to laud community at the expense of individualism.[ 1 ]

A similar phenomenon arose in the 1930s, when the Great Depression called into question the freedom and license of the 1920s. Among the diverse sages and prophets who responded to the national disaster, one in particular stands out, Henry C. Link (1889-1952). Born the son of a pious but ambitious carpenter, he graduated with a Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale University, entered the world of private enterprise, and made his way in the new field of industrial psychology, where he devised and supervised tests to determine the suitability of applicants for jobs. One invention in which he took particular pride was the “personality quotient” (PQ), which he claimed could measure emotional maturity as the “intelligence quotient” (IQ) measured mental capacity. He published extensively, and by the end of the 1920s he was a nationally recognized expert.

“Children are individualists,
but must be taught to become
social beings.”

The Great Depression prompted Link to consider larger issues. In 1936, he published the first in a series of books addressed to the general public, which expressed a point of view that was as radical in its ideas as it was emphatic in its tone. He advocated, not merely a greater restraint on the impulses of the individual and more consideration for the needs of society, but a complete reversal of the relationship between the two. Far from disregarding, dismissing, or deploring group coercion and control, he praised and exalted them. Instead of celebrating individual freedom, he denigrated it and recommended its subordination to the dictates of the majority.

Anti-Emersonianism might be an appropriate term to describe this doctrine. The individual must not look into himself and follow his own promptings for guidance in life, Link warned. That was “introversion” and led to self-absorption, isolation, personal unhappiness, and failure. The business of life was “extroversion,” associating with other people, and to be successful at this, one needed to engage in activities that they considered desirable, thereby developing “the habits and skills which interest and please” them—in a word, “personality.”

The proper conditioning should begin in childhood, Link advised. He rejected the idea that “children are individuals and must be treated as such.” Instead, he declared, “Children are individualists, but must be taught to become social beings.” They need to acquire “hundreds of specific habits” that “represent activities and standards which parents or society consider desirable,” and they can do so “only under discipline,” which has to be enforced “regardless of the child’s desires, impulses, or arguments.”

Such behavior, learned at an early age, would serve well later in life. “The child who often pays compliments or says things which he knows will please other people, who tries to be friendly with all people whether he likes them or not” is developing highly valuable “personality traits.” The pupil who knows “how to please the teacher” will, in the future, be able to “please the bosses.” The youth who “learns to take his place in the group or on the team” will find that “teamwork...is the very foundation of personal and social happiness.”

Link did something
that no other author
has done before or

Things went best, Link believed, when society imposed its demands early and heavily on potentially wayward individuals. Hard work produced “habits conducive to self-forgetfulness and happiness.” But in recent years (specifically the 1920s), conditions had become lax. Affluence and leisure time had increased, families had become smaller, and people had begun to indulge in new and harmful liberties. “Where every person insists on thinking for himself...the thinking of one person contradicts that of another,” and social disorder is the result. Especially dangerous was “the philosophy of self-expression,” which encouraged each marriage partner to pursue his or her “selfish desires,” with a rising number of divorces as the consequence.

Young people in particular were at risk. Many of them went to college and came out with no marketable skills. In addition, Link asserted, “there is a growing body of evidence...that the prolongation of formal education results in a deterioration of personality.” In fact, “statistics show that the higher the education, the higher the divorce rate.” One psychological study found that “‘the divorced, both men and women, have more intellectual interests than either of the married groups.’” The source of the problem was clear: “Intellect and imagination often become the chief enemies of personality.... Psychic surgery proves that certain people would be better off with less brains.”

Faced with these threats, Link proposed stern measures (falling short of lobotomies, however beneficial those might be in individual cases). In 1933, President Roosevelt had established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which provided work in rural localities for young, unmarried men. The volunteers lived in camps under semimilitary supervision. Being a staunch political conservative, Link opposed and deplored other programs of the New Deal, but he was enthusiastic about this one. The CCC operated “on the principle of enforced work and group discipline,” he noted with approval; it provided “a situation...where other people do the thinking and give the orders, and you do the work.” In the process, the CCC participants, having been thrown together with individuals of various kinds and backgrounds, “learned to respect and like people whom they would never voluntarily have chosen as friends.... If I could make only one recommendation in regard to the American educational system,” Link concluded, “it would be that all boys between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one be compelled to spend a full year in the Civilian Conservation Corps camps...rich and poor alike, and especially college students.”

In three books (The Return to Religion, The Rediscovery of Man, and The Way to Security), Link did something that no other author has done before or since, so far as I am aware. He recognized the importance of group control and individual conformity as a crucial feature of American life. Instead of worshipping at the shrine of individualism as an ideal, he called for it to be disparaged and dethroned.

Americans temporarily
ceased to be the incessant
and irrepressible advocates
of individual freedom
that they normally are.

His first book, The Return to Religion (1936), was a best-seller, thanks to the mood of the times and the theme of religion. The Great Depression had initiated an era of fear. Americans temporarily ceased to be the incessant and irrepressible advocates of individual freedom that they normally are. They began to speak about the need to “adjust” a child to society, rather than to encourage him to cultivate and pursue his own personal desires. People in this state of mind were receptive to Link’s message.

In addition, though religion was in fact a minor and incidental part of the book, its presence in the title provided a strong enticement. Americans, as explained elsewhere, are attracted to religion in the abstract as a purveyor of generalized good.[ 2 ] Other, even more unlikely works (such as Evelyn Waugh’s snobbish and remote Brideshead Revisited and Arnold Toynbee’s ponderous and esoteric Study of History) have enjoyed unexpected success in the United States for the same reason.

Link’s subsequent writings lacked an obvious religious hook, and they enjoyed far less popularity than the first. During the 1950s, the climate of opinion began to change, as economic prosperity persisted and public confidence gradually returned. Americans, having regained their normal view of individual freedom as the supreme ideal of their country, wanted nothing to do with an author who preached obedience to collective rules and influence.

In 1963, an eminent historian and redoubtable liberal pronounced his verdict against The Return to Religion as “possibly the most consummate manual of philistinism and conformity every written in America.” The rebellious and optimistic people of that time had no taste for Link’s writings, which gradually fell into oblivion. Today, his books are out of print, and his name is forgotten.

— ♦ —

One of the most basic questions about America—perhaps the most basic question—is how its citizens are able to reconcile their idealistic belief in individual freedom with the social reality of group influence and control. Americans themselves refuse to confront the question. They enthusiastically celebrate individual freedom, while they refuse to recognize the need for or existence of anything but the most obvious and necessary collective regulations. They blithely assume that personal liberty and social requirements exist in a relationship of natural and spontaneous harmony.

The essence of the
American achievement
is the delicate and
dynamic balance that
it has struck between
individualism and

Link knew better. The distinctive quality of his writing—and the one that deserves our attention—is their emphatic insistence on the existence of an important aspect of American society that is consistently disregarded and ignored. Again and again, he pointed out that individuals had to be restrained and guided by collective influence, and he called for more of it.

It must be admitted that Link’s view of reality is rather crude and severely limited. While he was entirely right in perceiving the need for social control, he was completely blind to the importance of individual freedom as a crucial ingredient of the entire social mixture, specifically as a motivational force. The essence of the American achievement is the delicate and dynamic balance that it has struck between individualism and conformity. If there were too much individualism, the result would be disorder, with egotism and capriciousness running wild. If there were too much conformity, the result would be stultification, with initiative and innovation being suppressed. But when the two are harnessed together and synchronized properly, the result is a productive synergy that can be seen in the groups at work throughout the United States.

An individual is permitted, even encouraged, to be ambitious and to assume responsibilities, but he is not allowed to go too far. The moment his actions start to interfere with those of his coworkers, the group steps in and calls him to order. This balance is present in a mode of work that has been called “antagonistic cooperation,” where people behave sometimes as teammates and sometimes as rivals. A collective consensus, unspoken and unnoticed, constantly presides over the entire operation, keeping it in motion and in tune.

This is not—let it be emphasized—a spontaneous condition of human nature or social arrangement. It is quite rare in the world, and America is the one nation that has it in abundance. Here it does its work unperceived, while everyone goes about repeating the platitudes of individual freedom as the nation’s dominant ideal.

One person who understood the subtle and supple reality was a figure even more obscure and remote than Henry C. Link—the Scottish phrenologist George Combe (1788-1858). When he visited the United States, his role as the advocate for a young and controversial science evidently induced him to pay close attention to the social factors that influenced people for or against new ideas.

“Public opinion
does with us what
the Inquisition
could never do.”

“An American will pursue his pleasure and his [self-]interest as if no other being existed in the world,” Combe observed, but the moment his behavior arouses collective disapproval, he shrinks back and obeys the dictates of the group. He realizes that the penalty for resistance is ostracism or expulsion, if not worse. In this way, the consensus of those with whom an individual has significant dealings—his coworkers especially, but also the neighbors or any other important peer group—is able to regulate his conduct.

Other foreign visitors have perceived the power and readiness of an American group to bring an unruly individual to heel. Tocqueville in particular marveled that public opinion in America could command a far wider and more profound obedience than “the most absolute monarchs in Europe”: “As long as the majority is still undecided, discussion is carried on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced, everyone is silent, and the friends as well as the opponents of the measure unite in assenting to its propriety.” He went on to describe the miserable ostracism inflicted on any who dared to dissent openly, and he concluded that he knew of “no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.” One of the more honest and perceptive of his American informants agreed: “Public opinion does with us what the Inquisition could never do.”

Tocqueville’s famous phrase “the tyranny of the majority” has often been misinterpreted as referring only to a national majority in the arena of politics. Along with his somewhat abstract discussion of the subject, one should also read the more concrete and detailed analysis by George Combe, who realized that the power of a majority to coerce dissidents goes deeper than politics. It is a social phenomenon that appears wherever there is a group of any size.

It is Combe who may be said to have solved the “national paradox” that so perplexes foreigners: how can Americans behave with so much apparent disorderliness and yet at the same time function with such incredible productive efficiency.[ 3 ]

source of the above:

Charles Churchyard. National Lies: The Truth About American Values. Ch. 5-6.

Foreign critics have sometimes called Americans individualists and sometimes conformists. They are accurate on both counts. Chapters five and six analyze the crucial balance between these two tendencies.

Americans are able to reconcile their idealistic belief in individual freedom with the social reality of group influence and control by celebrating the former and refusing to admit the existence of the latter. This concealment is “a necessary secret” (the title of chapter six).

[ 1 ] See the excerpt entitled “American Individualism and Emerson, Its Champion.”

[ 2 ] See the excerpt entitled “The Popularity of Religion.”

[ 3 ] See the excerpt entitled “A National Paradox.”