“It ain’t that hard to understand,” Newt Gingrich said recently, referring to the idea of using “shame” to stamp out undesirable behavior. “Read Himmelfarb’s book. It isn’t that complicated.” Certainly, Gingrich’s summary of The Demoralization of Society could not, as reported, be called “complicated.” His remarks indicate one level of response to the book, but they are premised on the assumption that Himmelfarb’s topical argument is backed by the authority of historical scholarship. It is worth considering how far that assumption is justified.
This is Gertrude Himmelfarb’s tenth book. As a historian, she has largely concentrated on the intellectual and social history of Victorian Britain; her earlier books dealt with the thought of such leading figures as Acton, Darwin, and Mill, while her more recent work has tended to focus on the analysis and treatment of poverty. Most of her historical writing has also been intended, implicitly or (increasingly) explicitly, to address issues in contemporary American society. Thus, for example, her controversial interpretation of John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill, published in 1974, contained a long concluding section in which she argued that the inadequacies of Mill’s conception of liberty were most manifest in, and had perhaps contributed to, the glorification of individual self-expression, and especially sexual expression, in the present. Though largely devoted to an exegesis of Mill’s writings, the book’s animating purpose was
in fact a restatement of the case for convention, tradition, and inherited order.