Alan Ehrenhalt: How the Yes Man Learned to Say No

Roundup: Talking About History

[Alan Ehrenhalt, the executive editor of Governing magazine, is the author of “The United States of Ambition” and “The Lost City.”]

MOST of us know what conformity is. We know what individualism is. We understand at some level that civilized society is based on a continuing tension between them. And many of us look back at the second half of the 20th century as a drama about that tension: the conformist, white-bread 1950s yielding to the individualist rebellion of the 1960s, and to the eccentricities of the baby boom generation that dominated the two decades after that.

These things are conventional wisdom now, but they didn’t always seem so obvious. Most Americans of the 1950s didn’t even think of themselves as conformists — until William H. Whyte Jr. came along, 50 years ago today, and explained it all to them in “The Organization Man.”

Whyte didn’t invent the terms he used — “organization man,” “yes man,” “togetherness” — but he assembled them into a hugely influential package that ended up not only defining a decade but framing a debate that has gone on ever since. “The Organization Man” is worth thinking about on its 50th birthday — both for the insights it provided about its time and for a lesson into the pitfalls of predicting the future.

Whyte’s book wasn’t an instant sensation. The sociologist C. Wright Mills panned it in The Times. But within six months, the book’s ideas were embedded in the intellectual currency of academia, journalism and the day-to-day conversation of educated people.

By the following spring, it was hard to find a college commencement speaker who didn’t devote his remarks to the conformity crisis and its implications....

What we can say with confidence half a century later is that Whyte got the future almost entirely wrong. He saw conformity and the social ethic as the values that would shape America — much to its detriment — for the remainder of the century. He urged his readers to fight the good fight against them, one by one — but without much hope that they would succeed.

At the time “The Organization Man” was published, the first wave of baby boomers was still in elementary school. A decade later, instead of absorbing the conformist lessons of their education, members of the youthful intellectual elite were beginning an individualist rebellion on almost every social front — against parents, against professors, against sexual restriction, against the idea of authority in general.

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....

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