Reviewed 4/24/2006

Warning: Nonsense is Destroying America, by Vincent Ruggiero

The Role of Popular Culture in America's Social Problems
Vincent Ryan Ruggiero
Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994




ISBN 0-7679-0628-4 291p. SC/BWI $14.95

The first thing you notice about Vincent Ruggiero is that he is a very intelligent man. His writing is sophisticated: the sentences are long but not convoluted; the vocabulary is large but is used to communicate, not to impress. Above all, he has a deep understanding of America's current problems, writes about them clearly, and proposes some good solutions.

The second thing you notice is that he is a Republican and a Christian. I do not fall into either of those two categories, so I may be demonstrating bias here, but I felt his repetitious recitation of horrible examples was way over the top. Here's one example, from pages 55-56 (emphasis in original):

The implication in these cases, as in all expressions of selfism, is that everyone is already talented or likable and need only accept the fact. What a foolish notion. As if people's self-estimates were always too low, as if they never lied to themselves and rationalized so as to justify unjustifiable behavior! Consider the case of the Florida widow and her stepdaughters who were so adamant about their conflicting claims to the ashes of the deceased that a circuit court judge (not named Solomon) had no alternative but to divide the poor fellow into equal piles. Or the father who viciously punched his four-year-old in the head and ground her face into the floor because she spilled a few french fries in a restaurant. Or the Hicksville, New York school bus driver who pleaded guilty to raping and sodomizing sixteen kindergarten youngsters.

– pages 55-56

As if there might not be something more than society's over-emphasis of self-esteem operating here — certainly in the last two cases, probably in all three.

Let me be clear: I think Mr. Ruggiero is absolutely right when he says the over-emphasis of self-esteem in schools is pernicious. It's putting the cart before the horse; the proper sequence is, first you achieve something, then you feel good about yourself as a result. Remember, though, that excessive lack of self-esteem is a rather effective preventer of achievement; and in such cases boosting self-esteem is the right remedy. The trick is knowing when to stop boosting. If you don't, you run the risk of inducing baseless self-esteem. There is considerable evidence that this has happened in American schools. For example:

Some of the most damning evidence against selfism comes from research done on self-esteem. Neuroscience researcher David Shannahoff-Khalsa1 challenges the alleged benefits of enhanced self-esteem, citing studies of international math performance. In one such study, American students boasted that they would score the highest on an examination, and South Koreans believed that they would score the lowest. The reverse occurred. A Purdue University study comparing the performance of a high self-esteem group and a low group concluded that "the higher the self-esteem, the lower the performance." Moreover, a National Institute of Mental Health study found no significant relationship between low self-esteem and juvenile delinquency."

– page 57

I also take issue with certain views Mr. Ruggiero expresses. He says that Sigmund Freud is not the heroic mind-healer his adherents claim, and I agree; but I think Ruggiero goes too far in denigration. Similarly, he denigrates the "let it all hang out" television talk shows like Jerry Springer and Sally Jesse Raphael, and rightly so, but I object to his lumping Phil Donahue's show in that bunch. Finally, citing research by "communication specialist" Judith Reisman, he rips apart the work of Dr. Alfred Kinsey. This calls for more detailed treatment; see the rant linked below.

The third thing about Mr. Ruggiero is that he's prolific. I checked Amazon.com: he has about 24 different titles listed there, including this one. All are on the general topics of self-help, critical thinking, and ethics. He mentions lecturing on those subjects, and it's fairly clear that the books are an adjunct to that lucrative practice. Now, I have no problem with Mr. Ruggiero pulling down "3 or 4 figures" per lecture. (I really have no idea what his fees are.) I don't mind it that a fellow named Clinton pulls down "5 or 6 figures" for every talk.2 While I might object to some people's lecturing, it would be on the basis of what they said, not because of how much they made for saying it.

But the thing is, if someone makes a career out of lecturing, the risk is that they can settle into a comfortable rut where smooth delivery of the "product" (and the resulting cash flow) become the top priorities. That is what I think happened in Mr. Ruggiero's case. He's got a prescription for America's ills, and it sells well; but I don't think his diagnosis is either complete or accurate.

As I progressed through the chapters, I found myself more and more in disagreement with Ruggiero. The schism became unbridgeable when I read Chapter 7, "Fashionable Religion". Here the hostility toward science, liberalism, and popular culture rises to a sort of peak (or pique), expressed in passages like this one:

Popular culture's disparagement of religion is no coincidence. It is the continuing, heightened expression of what philosopher William Barrett terms "the effort to undermine in one way or another the spiritual status of the human person." By 1900 the passion for science created by Darwinism succeeded in purging from the university supposedly nonscientific matters such as love, charity, loyalty and faith; the extension of this purge eventually deleted the subject of religion from history textbooks.

– page 158

The assertion that faith has been banished from American universities3 is absurd. Mr. Ruggerio is letting his distaste for popular culture run away with him.

To sum it up, I think Mr. Ruggerio vastly overstates his case, falling into the common error of blaming all the faults in society on a few individuals he perceives as members of the counterculture, and then demonizing them. In my judgement the book is worth reading. But go to a library to read it; it's not worth buying.

1 David Shannahoff-Khalsa has a practice in "alternative therapies for psychiatric disorders." He bills himself as The Internet Yogi. Is he a reliable researcher? I don't know. The one review I found of him is simply inconclusive: Video reviewed by Lee Baer, Ph.D. (Scroll about halfway down to read it.)
2 Okay, maybe I mind it a little... But that's just envy.
3 I wonder if the presidents of Catholic universities like Notre Dame would agree that faith has been purged from the American university. Too bad we cannot ask the late William Sloane Coffin, former Chaplain of Yale University. But we could consult Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame.
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