Small Streams

Unorganizing the Organization Man
November 27, 2006, 9:50 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

The New York Times published an op-ed by Alan Ehrenhalt on William Whyte’s Organization Man. I’m a big William Whyte fan so I was a little defensive about Ehrenhalt’s conclusion, essentially that Whyte got it wrong in writing that strong conformist tendencies would continue to stifle Americans.

What seems clearest about “The Organization Man,” half a century after publication, is that it mistook the end of something for the beginning of something. If the “social ethic” really did dominate mid-’50s America — and there is plenty of evidence besides Whyte’s book to testify that it did — it was the last act in a long period of national cohesion. As the historian Warren Susman characterized it, Americans stuck together to fight the Depression; then to fight the Nazis; then simply because they were used to it; eventually they just got tired of sticking together. That is as succinct and persuasive an explanation of the social upheaval of the 1960s as I have ever heard. Whyte didn’t see it coming; but then it’s hard to imagine any way he could have seen it coming.

Perhaps it was books like The Organization Man to have ourselves take stock in what our true values were, and oppose the yes-man mentality.

I still think there’s a fairly strong pro-corporate, anti-individual culture in this country — especially among elites. Just the other day I heard an up-and-comer use the concept of Emerson’s transparent eyeball as an illustration of how the self should submit to the group. I kind of got what he was saying, but I never in a hundred years would have imagined such a thing. It was a great example of orthogonal thinking used to justify staying inside the box.

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