LIKE a modern-day Don Quixote, author Richard Merelman charges about America's cultural landscape jousting with offensive windmills. In Merelman's universe, the practical and mundane become the mystical and fantastical.
Where we simple Sancho Panzas would attribute the apparent popularity of mobile homes to the plain fact that mass production of these dwellings makes home ownership possible for many who would otherwise be renters, Don Ricardo's psychic vision perceives that ''living 'permanently' in a stationary mobile home perfectly reconciles our love for movement with our need for security.''
In regard to cars, Merelman, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, rapturously informs us that ''the design of the automobile has moved from enclosed, rectangular, internal spaces to fluid, flexible interiors in which passengers enjoy ample window space, and in which they ride on aerodynamic frames that adjust flexibly to the outside world. This design evolution from rectilinear boxes to curved fluid lines accentuates the cultural merger between landscape, automobile, and passenger.''
Sorry, Don Ricardo, but on the roads I travel, the cars seem far more ''rectilinear'' than the cars of the past, and furthermore, if my car's frame ever starts to ''adjust flexibly to the outside world,'' I'm going to trade it in for something that will keep its shape. True, the cars of today are more aerodynamic, but we pragmatists believe that this is primarily because of the increased demand for fuel-efficient vehicles. If you must have a psychological explanation for this phenomenon, could it not be that sleekness is the aesthetic norm in a culture that favors skinny models?
On a more serious level, this book is characterized by an amazing lack of familiarity with fact. This is never more manifest than in its treatment of liberal individualism. Like Karl Marx and other materialists, Merelman sees economics as being the base on which ideas rest, rather than the reverse. Thus he maintains that ''scientific knowledge . . . fueled the engines of a flourishing nineteenth-century liberal individualism,'' even though liberal individualism rested on ethical, not technological, pinions. Such individualism, Merelman believes, is inimical to society.
Historically, the societies that have been the most peaceful and prosperous have been those where the ideals of liberal individualism have prevailed. Where individual rights are most secure and individuals interact by voluntary contact instead of coercion, reciprocity and cooperation are the rule, and the division of labor (and hence general prosperity) is more developed.
Throughout Merelman's book there runs an undercurrent of hostility toward individuals. Thus, to Merelman, income inequalities are ''unpleasant structural realities'' rather than results of individual differences. To remedy this perceived unpleasantness, Merelman looks longingly toward the state - even though every other state that has set out on this path has left a stagnant economy (and, in the more ''successful'' cases, a pile of corpses) in its wake. He despairs that ''American political institutions'' are at present unable to ''compel society 'to conduct itself with greater intelligence.' ''
It must also be mentioned that this is not a well-written book. Merelman is enamored of his own knowledge and pet theories, proud of the names he can drop, the studies he can cite, and the jargon he can glibly employ. Professor Merelman has indulged in an exercise of intellectual self-adulation.
It is difficult to say whether this deformed writing is due to his academic penchant for interacting only with like-minded intellectuals or to an excessive chanting of the same mantra. Perhaps his high school English teachers weren't very demanding. In any case, the product is an offbeat, esoteric treatise that will bomb at the bookstores - although its mystical inventiveness might win it a cult following in academia among those who dwell in what author Carlos Castaneda euphemistically referred to as a ''separate reality.''
This book is the epitome of ivory-towered irrelevancy and intellectual narcissism. Reading ''Making Something of Ourselves'' is no way to make something of yourself.