My wife, Brigitte Berger née Kellner, died on May 28, 2015. Surviving are her husband/myself Peter Berger, her sons Thomas and Michael, her grandchildren Diya and Alex, and her brother Hansfried Kellner. Walter Russell Mead, of The American Interest, very kindly suggested that I write a column or an obituary for my blog (possibly also for the print magazine). The pain caused by my loss is right now so raw that I find myself unable to write a memorial with many personal episodes, nostalgic reminiscences and subdued humor. Perhaps some other time. On this occasion I will give an overview of her career as a social scientist and public intellectual. I think that this is due to the many people whose thinking and lives have been influenced by her. Of course I cannot keep out any personal references or events that also involved me—after all, Brigitte’s and my personal and intellectual lives were intertwined for so many years. But my focus here is on her career as a sociologist and, where relevant, as an individual concerned with public affairs.
Brigitte was born in eastern Germany in 1928. She came to the United States in the mid-1950s; we were married in 1959. She first wanted to do graduate work in history at Yale, with a special interest in the conflicting theories about the decline of Rome. She switched to sociology at the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York, a rather unusual institution originally established to host academic refugees from Nazi Germany and other totalitarian countries. In the 1950s many of these scholars were still around, teaching a very European version of sociology in close interaction with history, philosophy and literature. Brigitte received both of her degrees from the New School. Her M.A. thesis dealt with the memoirs of the Duc de Saint Simon, who wrote a multi-volume memoir of life at the court of Louis XIV. Her thesis dealt with the perspective of a declining class, the old aristocracy being replaced by the bourgeoisie running the new bureaucracy needed by the centralized state. The doctoral dissertation was an interpretation of Vilfredo Pareto, the eccentric Italian economist turned sociologist, whom Brigitte saw as a precursor of the sociology of knowledge.
Her first book, Societies in Change (1971), reflected the broad comparative approach she mainly absorbed from the work of Max Weber. Her major interest from then on was the sociology of the family, childhood and youth. In the 1970s Brigitte and I spent considerable periods of time in Mexico, in the idiosyncratic think-tank (Centro Intercultural de Documentacion Cultural) run by Ivan Illich in Cuernacava. Both of us became very interested in the problems of modernization and development. We co-authored, with Hansfried Kellner, a major study of these problems – The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness (1974). Brigitte’s focus was the impact of modernization on the traditional family. Illich could not be sqeezed into any ideological bottle, but virtually all Mexican sociologists we talked with were Marxists of one sort or any other; we wanted to approach the phenomena of modernization in a non-Marxist (basically Weberian) perspective. Needless to say, this put us at odds with the tsunami of neo-Marxism sweeping the social sciences, not only in Latin America but in the U.S. and western Europe. (Eastern Europe was a different matter. The best antidote against Marxism is to live in a country with a Marxist regime. Brigitte once opined that if the State Department wanted to advance democracy and love of America, it should fund a program for American and European students to study in the Soviet Union) .
The next two books developed Brigitte’s approach to the family as an institution: The War over the Family – Capturing the Middle Ground (1984) and The Family in the Modern Age: More than a Lifestyle Choice (2002). The books contained both empirical analyses (and Brigitte had an extensive knowledge of the relevant sociological and historical literature) as well as her own policy positions. The books were not influential. The reasons are revealed by the respective subtitles. Brigitte was unambiguously opposed to the Zeitgeist of American academia in the wake of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. The “middle ground” that the first book recommended, while it very probably represented the views of most Americans, was marginalized in academia. And the identity politics of the time did indeed come to view the heterosexual family as only one of several equally valid personal lifestyles. Indeed, family sociology, which had been Brigitte’s special field, basically disappeared from university catalogues, replaced by “gender studies” and “victimology”.
As a sociologist, Brigitte stood the earlier theory of the family (much favored by sociologists in the 1950s) on its head: The so-called nuclear family (husband, wife and children living in households separate from extended kin) had been understood as a product of modernization; using a large body of historical studies, Brigitte proposed that this nuclear family was one of the important causes of modernization. As a public intellectual, with the wellbeing of children as the guiding principle, she argued that this family type should be favored in the law and by state actions. “Middle ground” meant rejecting both the radical liberationism of the left and the reactionary fantasies of the right. Needless to say, placing yourself in the middle between opposing armies shooting at each other is not a career-enhancing move. There is a paradox here: Brigitte had no prejudices against homosexuals and supported their freedom to live in accordance with their sexuality, and she did not share the view that bourgeois marriage (at best three hundred years old) is the only natural or divinely mandated arrangement. On the other hand, she thought it an illusion that there are no important differences between men and women, or that two men or two women living together is the same as a man and a woman together raising the children they themselves have produced. The aforementioned paradox came out in Brigitte’s position in the debate over same-sex marriage: She would have preferred if the term “marriage” had been avoided in the much-needed legalization of same sex partnerships; on the other hand she thought it was a good thing if gays and lesbians now aspired to live by the bourgeois values that the sixties had so vehemently opposed.
Brigitte did not hide her views, which she ably defended both in her books and in many articles. One article of hers, that was not on a battleground in the culture war but still aroused controversy, was one in which she argued that so-called intelligence tests did not measure intelligence at all, but rather the mastery of a modern cognitive style. She was on the faculties of Hunter College of the City University of New York, Long Island University, Wellesley College, and Boston University; she chaired the sociology departments in the last two institutions. She was ideologically marginal everywhere she taught (especially at Wellesley, then as now a bastion of radical feminism). Despite this she was popular both with colleagues (whom she invariably treated with respect and good will) and with students (to whom she devoted enormous amounts of time and attention).
Brigitte and I, though working in quite different areas as sociologists, obviously influenced each other intellectually. Each read just about everything the other wrote, we criticized each other and often modified our positions as a result of the criticisms. Also, we shared the same values that animated our public stances. It is not surprising that our political trajectories were very similar, actually mostly followed together. When we became American citizens (I a few years before her), we at first voted Democratic because everyone we knew did that, we supported the civil rights movement and opposed the Vietnam War. Like several of our friends (for example Richard John Neuhaus) we were repelled by the anti-Americanism and the socialist utopianism of “the movement” (given our childhood experiences with Nazism, we instinctively associated that phrase with its German synonym, “die Bewegung”, used by the Nazis to describe themselves). We had a shared experience in 1968 (a very “postmodern” one, on television rather than in person). It was during the student riots at Columbia University, a few blocks from the Upper West Side of Manhattan where we then lived. A group of violent students were trying to break through a police barrier to storm the campus. The students were chanting, “the streets belong to the people, the streets belong to the people”. Both of us remembered something heard in our early years, the first line of the second verse of the Horst Wessel Lied, the anthem of the Nazi party: “the streets belong to the brown battalions, the streets belong to the storm trooper”. (I had an additional association from being then very interested in Hinduism, a phrase from the Upanishads—“tat tvam asi”—broadly translated as “this is that”.) With or without Sanskrit associations, Brigitte and I suddenly intuited the totalitarian tendencies in the American “movement”. We were pushed to the right. For a while we felt comfortable with the neoconservatives, notably people around the magazine Commentary in New York and the think-tank American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Then we had problems with that crowd as well, especially with its alliance with the right on the so-called “social issues” and with its increasingly bellicose Wilsonianism in foreign policy.
Brigitte’s understanding of sociology was lastingly influenced by her teachers at the New School (especially Carl Mayer, Albert Salomon, and Alfred Schutz). One has to go further back in her biography to look for the roots of her political values. She was a child in the Third Reich, in a fiercely anti-Nazi family. Her father was arrested by the Gestapo for associations with conservative officers close to the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler in 1944. He thought that his anti-Nazi record would protect him when the Soviets set up a Communist regime in eastern Germany. On the contrary, he was arrested as a “class enemy” (he owned land), deported to Russia from which he returned from prison years later, with his health broken. Brigitte and her mother jumped off a train that was going to take them to prison in Russia as well, and then escaped to western Germany. As a student in the early 1950s she participated in demonstrations against ex-Nazis occupying public positions in the new Federal Republic. But also she strongly supported the students who resisted the Communist domination of the Humboldt University in East Berlin, and moved to the western part of the city to found the Free University of Berlin. She came to America on her own, not with me or because of me, but like me she felt at home here as soon as she set foot in the country. We had met earlier when I worked in Germany for a Protestant think-tank after serving in the US Army for two years.
We met again after she settled in New York. Frankly, we were not terribly interested in each other at first (both of us being otherwise involved). This changed dramatically after the following incident. I had promised not to become too personal in this obituary. But the incident helps to understand the political values which motivated, not her brand of “value-free” sociology, but the stands she took in public life.
This was in the mid-1950s. I had my first full-time job teaching sociology at a college in North Carolina. I had been appalled before by the full-blown racial segregation that still existed then in the American South. I was outraged by the newspaper account of the trial of a black man condemned to death for the rape of a white woman—the primal crime in the paranoid imagination of white Southerners. I have been strongly opposed to capital punishment as far back as I can remember. In this case I felt sure that, while rape was a capital crime under state law, the racial aspect was crucial in the imposition of the ultimate penalty. By all accounts the man was guilty. All appeals had failed. The only recourse left was an act of mercy by the governor. I wrote a letter to the governor; I don’t remember whether it was even acknowledged. I tried to interest a number of religious and African-American organizations in writing to the governor. The only one that agreed was the Society of Friends, which simply stated, without specific reference to the case, that Quakers have always been opposed to the death penalty. The state NAACP responded that they would write to the governor if the defendant was not guilty, but since he evidently was guilty, they did not want to have anything to do with the case. I remembered that Brigitte knew a young lawyer who worked for the national headquarters of the NAACP. I phoned and asked her to call him—maybe the national NAACP might intervene. I only told her the basic facts: A black man sentenced to death for raping a white woman. It seems that he actually did it. Only an act of clemency by the governor could save him. Brigitte did not ask for more details. Would she call her lawyer friend? She immediately said “yes, of course”. (In the event nothing happened. The sentence was carried out.)
After the phone conversation I thought that I wanted to get to know more about this woman.